• 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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8 The Sundering

Tia's announcement went about as was expected. The revelation that their parents were gone and that the remote hope of being returned to their proper forms was crushing to the morale of the fillies and colts that made up her little ponies. Many a tear was shed.

The worst thing, though, were the nightmares. As the reality of their situation took further hold, many a young pony was losing sleep with the fevered imagined last moments of their parents at their own hooves. In something of an irony, Tia had rarely slept better in her life; the terrifying nightmares that had plagued her as long as she could remember had been gone since the night of the spell. Instead, when she slept, she had blissfully dreamless nights.

That is not to say she enjoyed sound sleep, however.

The oppressive nocturnal distress of her little ponies (her ponies? When did Tia start to think of them as 'hers'?) disturbed Tia greatly, making her own sleep restfulness with worry and guilt over the relative ease of it. It was with no small sense of relief a few days later that Luna revealed another of her new powers.

"Sister!" Luna had said excitedly, trotting into the makeshift office that was now where Tia spent the majority of her time, "I have news! Wonderful news!"

Tia looked up from the never ending reams of paperwork (how could a society building from essentially from scratch and composing entirely of young and infant ponies generate so much paperwork?) and blinked at her sister standing in front of her, "Wonderful news? That would be welcome, dear sister."

Luna couldn't help but grin widely as she pranced in place, "You know of the nightmares that the others have been having?" Irritatingly, Luna had paused at the rhetorical question -- of course Tia knew! Regardless, Tia nodded and gestured her sister to continue, tapping down her own annoyance at the few seconds waste. "I can help them!"

Tia blinked, but no more information was forthcoming. The rainbow haired alicorn rubbed her temple with a hoof as she felt a tension headache coming on, "That is, indeed, wonderful news Luna. I'm glad that talking with them has helped." Again, Tia felt irritation that her work had been interrupted for this 'news' -- there were already several ponies comforting the distressed dreamers. It had been enough of a problem that a permanent team had been established to do just that, in addition to their other duties. Again, Tia tamped down the emotion, replacing it with a twinge of guilt -- any help with this problem would be good, and it was unbecoming of her to consider the bureaucratic flow of paper to be more important than the welfare of her little ponies.

"It is no mere speech of which I speak, sister!" Luna exclaimed happily, "I mean that I can -- quite literally -- enter their dreams. I can interact and reshape the dreamscape like I do the night's sky. I can turn nightmares into pleasant slumber."

Now that was something noteworthy. Noteworthy enough that Tia set down her quill in the inkwell, eyebrows raising. "Truly?" she asked with mild surprise, "You have confirmed this?"

Luna let out a cascade of trilling laughter that Tia couldn't help but smile at, even considering her grouchy mood. Seeing her sister so joy-filled was infectious. "Oh, yes, Tia," Luna replied, smiling beatifically, "At first I thought it merely a fancy on my part -- a pleasant waking dream of my own that I could aid the others more directly than by providing a bit of nighttime entertainment. But then I heard Emerald Dust telling Crimson Star about a dream she had with me in it, and I recognized it immediately. After a bit of experimentation--" Luna's smile turned apologetic and sheepish, "--forgive me, sister, that I did not come as soon as I suspected, but I didn't want to disturb your work unless I had news truly worthy of report. Anyway, after a bit of experimentation, I discovered I could target and walk with any slumbering pony I wished. Direct line of sight wasn't needed... I only needed to think of them." Her smile once again turned bright, "I also discovered I could sense the dreamscape, as well as manipulate it. I am able to tell when a pony's sleep is in distress. With some practice, I think I will be able to enter and interact with multiple ponies at once."

Tia leaned back in her seat and thoughtfully stroked her chin with a hoof. "This is great news indeed," she said with a smile, "That will lessen the burden on the caretakers significantly if we can head these problems off at the outset, rather than relying on comforting ponies after the fact."

Luna nodded enthusiastically.

After a moments more thought, Tia peered owlishly at her sister, "Have you discussed this with anypony else?"

"Not directly, no," Luna replied after a moments hesitation, "Though I believe it will be common knowledge -- or, at least, common rumor -- soon enough as enough ponies begin to exchange stories of their dreams being altered and I being in them."

"Mmn," Tia replied, nodding, "Yes. We should make another announcement about this. I know your heart is in the right place, sister, but some ponies might be... uncomfortable... with you being able to enter their slumbering minds so easily. It would be better for us to forthrightly announce your newly discovered ability to ensure that any questions about it can be answered and assurances can be made that you will only go where wanted."

The good humor in Luna's demeanor began to dissolve and her ears went back on her head, hurt showing in her eyes. "I... I didn't think of that," she admitted uneasily, "Considering the problems the nightmares are causing, I thought everyone would rejoice at such a solution."

"They will," Tia assured her sister with a smile, "At least, most will." Tia sighed heavily and again rubbed her temple, "Unfortunately, as I have become distressingly aware since the big announcement regarding our parents and the nature of the spell cast, that some ponies may fear or resent us."

"Fear us?" Luna asked in mild surprise.

Tia cast a tired smile to her sister and shrugged, stretching out her wings, "We are the last of the alicorns, Luna. It was our spell that stripped the others of their very nature. Is it any wonder that resentment and fear may take hold?"

Luna frowned. "I suppose not."

"To further cast aside such fears," Tia stated thoughtfully, "Perhaps you could work with Stardancer? See if she can come up with some magical theory to account for your new ability? Maybe even replicate it with the unicorns at least? Spreading the power around will do much to alleviate any distrust."

Luna's frown deepened and her eyes cast down. "Oh. All right."

Confusion spread over Tia's features and she canted her head to one side, "Something wrong?"

Luna sat down in front of the desk and squirmed uncomfortably in place before a moment before turning her eyes back to her sister and speaking, "It's just that... well, you raise the sun, Tia! It's vitally important, I know that. Not only that, but you are responsible for all the record keeping. Me? I just provide some pretty pictures at night. And the novelty of that is wearing quite thin, especially as work continues." Luna dipped her head, scuffing the floor with a forehoof, "I just... wanted to be more useful."

Tia blinked several times at the revelation. "Oh," she said, at a bit of a loss. She sighed and shook her head, "Truthfully, Luna, I didn't know you felt this way. Sorry. I had been doing all the record keeping because, well, somepony had to and everything is my responsibility. I didn't... I didn't want to burden anypony, especially you." Tia smiled, "And I would never have known about controlling the sun if you hadn't first painted the stars and moon. At the very least, you are appreciated for that."

"I guess," Luna replied sullenly, suddenly seeming much more like the young filly she was supposed to be.

"I'm sure most of the others will gladly accept your nocturnal help, sister," Tia stated, injecting joviality into her words that she didn't really feel to attempt to brighten the spirits of her dark sister, "And if some of the unicorns can learn to do what you do with dreams, then it will also provide a solution for those who don't accept the help. Either way, you will be instrumental in helping to solve the Nightmare Crisis."

Luna merely nodded morosely.

Tia paused, considering her sister for a long moment. "There is... another matter," she said slowly, "The salvage teams are going to run out of stuff to find eventually. Even now, the amount of useful materials we find is slowing. At the same token, I am loathe to disband the teams entirely. So, I am considering reassigning them to a different task. A task which you might be a great asset for."

Luna peered at her sister, curiosity piqued.

Tia smiled, happy to see her sister's interest again focused. "One of the main records we lost during the battle were maps. We know the town easily enough, but the surrounding area is largely not. Furthermore, we don't know if there were other environmental changes because of the spell backlash; and if there are, we need to catalog and evaluate them. Why not solve both problems by assigning the recovery teams to scout and mapping missions. Call it... call it a Long Patrol." Tia's smile widened, "Considering we don't know what we might face out there, and that those ponies without wings would make such expeditions very unwieldy and resource-heavy, having somepony along with both wings and the ability to use magic would be invaluable. Since I am needed to deal with this paperwork--" Tia cast a disgusted glare to the offending material in front of her, "--I can think of no pony better suited for the leadership and responsibility of this task than yourself."

Luna's smile reappeared with full force and she stood up. "Yes! Yes, that sounds great!" After a moment, the dark alicorn caught herself and coughed, returning to a more calm demeanor, "I mean, I will take this task with the utmost austerity and responsibility it requires, sister."

Tia couldn't help but let out an amused chuckle. "Good. I'll do the -- ugh -- paperwork for the new Long Patrol tomorrow and we'll announce it during the same meeting where we reveal your new powers. In the meantime, please go see Stardancer in the library."

Luna's smile faltered just slightly at the request, but she nodded and saluted. "Understood." Then a concerned frown settled over the filly alicorn's features and she peered at her sister, "Speaking of dreams... Tia, how have yours been? Now that I'm in a position to aid you..." She let her statement fade off in silent offering.

For a moment, Tia hesitated before sighing. "Truthfully, Luna, I haven't really had any, either of the pleasant or nightmarish variety." A sardonic smile spread over her features, "How ironic that a great tragedy like this somehow leads to a more restful night for the one pony most responsible?"

"You haven't had any?" Luna asked in surprise, "None at all?"

Tia shook her head.

"How... odd," Luna replied thoughtfully, pursing her lips, "Mmn." The alicorn hesitated then offered up, "If you'd like, we can test my abilities? I confess, I've not had the opportunity to attempt to enter the sleep of somepony not dreaming. It might be interesting to try, at any rate."

Tia considered the offer then nodded, "All right. I suppose if it doesn't work, there isn't any harm done. We can do it tonight, I suppose, after you raise the moon and stars and I head to bed."

"Done," Luna stated with a definitive nod, "Now, if you will excuse me, I will now go see Stardancer. Until this evening, dear sister." The dark pony turned and headed out.

***

Tia was dead tired when it came time to lower the sun and let Luna raise the night's sky. Despite not being particularly physically draining, doing paperwork was nonetheless fatiguing. Her growling stomach revealed that she had not eaten that day, so despite her weariness, she headed to the communal eating facility.

She smiled and nodded to the ponies she passed, most of whom returned the gesture.

A few, however, glowered at her or watched her with suspicious eyes and flattened ears. Tia sighed at the inevitable result of her announcement. She hoped that the understandable resentment and anger in those ponies would abate in time. Nonetheless, it was a worrying precedent.

As she walked through the halls of the Town Hall, Tia idly noted groups of ponies gathering together. She smiled to herself; it was nice to see her little ponies getting along. Still, something gnawed at her fatigued mind as she saw the various groups, but she couldn't place her hoof on what it was. That was, until she entered the communal eating area.

Occupying the largest table with the largest number of ponies was Silverhoof, all the others arrayed around him and looking to him with pleasant smiles and idle, cheery chatter. The smiles and chatter stopped suddenly as she entered, and the entire table looked towards her, some with outright hostility, others with mild disdain. It was Silverhoof himself who had, by far, the most hostile expression, glaring at Tia with narrowed eyes and a deep frown.

What struck Tia so suddenly was that the rest of Silverhoof's grouping (save one) were all unicorns. As she cast her mind back to her walk down the halls, she recalled that most of the groups were also of majority one pony type -- pegasi with other pegasi, geo-equines with other geo-equines, unicorn with unicorn. This curious stratification worried Tia, though she couldn't put into words exactly why.

Still, there were a few who flitted between the designated groups. One such pony was with Silverhoof's group.

It was Stardancer.

She occupied the seat right next to Silverhoof (from the arrangement of the seats, Tia concluded that particular position was a favored one), and at least wasn't actively glaring at Tia. Instead, she offered a sheepish, fluttery smile and raised a hoof in greeting. Slowly, the nasty looks of the other ponies shifted away and they began to chatter again, this time with much more muted tones.

He is gathering malcontents against you.

Tia jumped as she heard the Voice -- it had been some time since she had last heard it that she had convinced herself it was a figment of her imagination. Now it was back, and no figment.

You have time, yet, to counter his power play, the Voice continued dispassionately, His pieces are not yet in place and he has no answer to the power you wield over the sun. Before he can attempt to usurp your position, he must have the latter.

Tia shook herself out of her shock at hearing the Voice again and turned towards the food preparation area. Taking a tray, she headed up to the (thankfully small) line and waited to be served by the laboring cooking ponies in the kitchen. This area had, thankfully, been a full canteen for the use of public servants before the spell, so all the amenities one would expect for cooking were there. It had proven adequate so far, but it was clearly at its limit. Tia made a mental note to bring up the idea of expanding the kitchens at the next meeting.

Heedless of her thoughts, the Voice continued, He obviously believes that the key to power is magic -- unsurprising, considering he retained his horn. He is building his power-base along those lines.

Tia tried to ignore the Voice, but couldn't help but cast a look over her shoulder at the grouping of unicorns and Stardancer.

But he is not quite the fool he appears, the Voice continued its analysis shrewdly, He is willing to allow others into his group if he can use them. Witness, the geo-equine. Truly, there does not exist in all of your subjects one more versed in the knowledge of magic. She is the key to breaking his power before it becomes truly worrisome.

Tia frowned. Subjects? She didn't think of her little ponies as such; they were her friends and responsibilities.

You will need to turn her against him, the Voice insisted, Without her knowledge, his plans will come to naught. Otherwise, he will attempt to usurp you, eventually. No doubt he is poisoning her mind against you even now, but she yet respects and trusts you; though that respect and trust is weakening. You must act soon. Rend her away from his side. Take control.

Tia worried her lower lip as she stared at the group, her eyes focusing on Stardancer and brows furrowed. A coldness gripped her heart -- she wanted to refute the Voice; not because she was worried for her authority or control, but because she was worried about her friend. Surely, Stardancer would not be so blind as to allow herself to be used by Silverhoof? Tia didn't want to see her hurt or used by anyone.

"Tia? Hey, geo-equine to Tia!"

The rainbow-haired alicorn was snapped out of her worried reverie by a pony waving a hoof in her face behind the counter. "Huh?"

"You okay there, Tia?" the pony asked with a worried expression, her mottled brown coat and darker brown mane a bit mussed from working in the kitchens.

"Y... yes, Brown Betty," Tia replied with a strained smile, "Sorry. Long day, I'm a bit out of it."

A lopsided smile spread on Brown Betty's features and she winked, "Yeah, I guess lifting' all that paper and quill ink really takes it out of someone. You should try working in the kitchens for a day!" Tia winced at the description of her less-than-exerting work, despite the joking tone it was delivered in. "Anyway, what do you want?"

"Just some grilled vegetables would be fine," Tia stated with a tired smile before hesitating and adding, "And... um... I don't suppose you have any cake?"

***

Her belly satiated (and having a nice bit of vanilla frosted cake had been a pleasant surprise), Tia dragged herself into the communal sleeping chambers. Ponies lounged around in various states of wakefulness and the alicorn quickly settled into an unoccupied pillow. With tired eyes, Tia glanced around at the other ponies and made another mental note to bring up the possibility of actual bedrooms being built. At the very least, some kind of sectioning of the sleeping areas would be nice.

"Tia!" Luna's voice called out and Tia glanced over in the direction of the voice. Trotting over was her sister, accompanied by Stardancer, a stationary kit held in her mouth. Tia blinked at Stardancer uncomprehendingly for a moment, canting her head to one side.

"I'm here to observe," her friend geo-equine stated after setting down the stationery kit and beginning to unpack it, "Luna told me of her fascinating ability. I had heard of Oneiromancy before, but as far as I know the magical field is pretty unexplored. We haven't even recovered any books on the subject yet." Stardancer grinned, "It almost feels like I'm doing original research work! How exciting!"

Tia peered at her friend intently. Stardancer's face flickered and fell, taking on a worried cast, "Tia?" Stardancer's expression was echoed in Luna's.

"Stardancer," Tia said slowly, "I... mmn. How is Silverhoof doing?" Tia grimaced; the question sounded awkward even to her.

"Uh, he's fine," Stardancer replied, looking at Tia oddly, "Why?"

"He, um... he seems a bit... upset about me."

Stardancer hesitated before replying with a shake of her head, "He's just a bit sore over your announcement, is all. Most ponies are. He'll get over it. We all will."

Tia frowned, but before she could say anything more Luna spoke up, "Sister, you are clearly overly tired. Mayhap we should postpone this experiment to a later night?"

Tia shook her head, "No, no, it's fine. I am tired, but answering this question and getting some actual information about the magic involved is important." She smiled wryly, "Besides, being tired is kinda important for this experiment, right? Kinda hard to sleep when one is already well rested."

Luna still looked a little unsure, but Stardancer smiled widely, "Quite right! Now..." she flipped through a few pages of parchment, consideringly, "I don't have any direct means of measuring magic without a horn, but I should still be able to get a feeling of how things work. I would actually prefer to observe a scenario where Luna is certain she can perform Oneiromancy first to work as a baseline, but this is a special circumstance. I can compare to a control later once I have it."

"Would it not be better to postpone as I suggested, then?" Luna asked, canting her head, "If you need other samples first--"

"No, no, no postponement is necessary!" Stardancer stated a bit quicker and more forcefully than could appear casual, "I don't want to run the chance that Tia will begin to dream again and be completely unable to observe this phenomenon."

"Oh, so I'm to be your test animal, am I?" Tia teasingly asked with a lopsided grin.

Stardancer blinked then frowned, brows furrowing, "No, that's... not what I meant, Tia."

Tia sighed as her attempt at levity apparently failed spectacularly, shaking her head, "I know, Stardancer. Sorry. I was making a joke. I'm probably too tired to try doing so." She sighed again then settled down into the cushion, "Let's just do this. I really need some sleep." Tia let her heavy eyelids fall and in short order she was asleep.

***

Once again, Tia found herself in that grey expanse, surrounded by fog and filled with light with no discernible source. "Oh figures!" she said in a huff, frowning as she sat down on the indistinct floor.

A figure began to approach in shadow from the dark horizon, Tia standing once again and taking a defensive stance. The mists soon parted revealing Luna, looking about her with a bemused expression on her features.

"Luna?" Tia asked hesitantly, unsure if this was her sister or a phantom of her mind.

"Yes, 'tis I," the dark alicorn filly stated, smiling at her sister. An awkward pause followed before she spoke again, motioning with a hoof to the misty expanse, "So, this is your dream world?"

"Apparently," Tia remarked with a sigh, glancing around herself, "Not much to look at, is it?"

"Not really, no," Luna replied, trotting closer and taking a seat next to her sister. "Is it always like... this?"

"My nightmares? Most of the time. Not always, but mostly."

Luna grunted with a nod. "As nightmares go, it doesn't seem all that horrifying."

"I... suppose not," Tia replied with a frown, "Compared to what others have dreamt in their dark places, I guess mine's kinda... uninteresting." She paused then offered up a sheepish smile, "It is usually a bit more lively than this."

"Oh?" Luna asked, canting her head towards her sister.

Tia nodded, "There are sometimes... visions in the dark. Shapes that seem at once familiar yet alien." She shuddered at the memory, her voice dropping to a whisper, "And fire."

Luna blinked then extended a wing around the other alicorn, hugging her sister. "Fear not," she stated, "I'll always be here to protect you from such visions."

Tia smiled wryly and leaned into the winged embrace. "Well, something to look forward to, I guess." The two passed a time in silence before Tia spoke again. "Well, I guess we should test some things, huh? Wanna see if you can manipulate things here like you can in a normal dream?"

"Assuming this isn't one," Luna mused thoughtfully, "Though it would be quite the coincidence if you happened to dream the very night we tried to capture a dreamless state." Luna reached out with a hoof and her horn glowed gently, casting the empty world in a dark light that clashed with the diffuse white. She frowned faintly. "Odd," Luna said, "Your dreamstuff is much harder to manipulate than anything I've experienced prior. It's like hard clay compared to the easy flowing watercolors of others." Her horn glowed more brightly and the area in front of her hoof seemed to warp and shift until, with a pop, a deck of colorful cards appeared. Luna grinned to her sister and quickly offered the deck over, "A small start, but I can at least change things here."

Tia smiled wryly and glanced down at the deck, idly flipping through them. "'Ace of Alicorns', 'Two of Sisters', 'Three of Spells'," Tia read through the cards before chuckling, "Rather on the nose, isn't it, dear sister?"

Luna frowned and leaned closer to peer at the cards, "Actually, those aren't the cards I wished to summon. How... interesting. I know from previous sojourns that the dreamer's subconscious can have an effect on the dreamscape, but usually not on the phantasms I create."

Tia let out a non-committal sound as she continued to flip through the cards. She suddenly stopped when she reached one card in particular: Queen of Order. The young alicorn stared at the card, depicting a stylized large white alicorn sitting on a throne of gold, her horn glowing a harsh white. Groveling before the throne were the prone silhouettes of genuflecting ponies, an indistinct multitude that seemed to grow the longer Tia stared. Tia found the whole thing disquieting, especially the hard, cold, imperious expression on the alicorn's features -- one that spoke of a pitiless, iron will.

"That looks like you, all grown," Luna remarked curiously, peering at the card and snapping Tia out of her reverie.

Blinking, Tia looked at the card again and couldn't repress a shudder, though she let out a trilling cascade of too-cheerful laughter. "I hope not," Tia remarked with a smirk, "Golden throne? I like to think I would have more taste than something so ostentatious, dear sister."

Luna smiled at the statement, but her face still betrayed a bit of worry; no doubt she noticed the shudder and the artificial nature of the laughter. To forestall any questions, Tia quickly shuffled the cards, speaking airily. "I hope Stardancer is getting some good data for her studies."

"She is..." Luna's voice faded off and her eyes became unfocused before a smirk appeared on her features, "... asleep, actually. I think the lateness of the hour affected her as well."

"Asleep?" Tia asked curiously, rubbing her chin with a hoof before an impish smile appeared on the alicorn's features, "Mm. Well. You want to practice a bit more of your abilities, Luna? Let's see if you can enter both her dream and mine at the same time."

Luna's eyebrows arched, but a wide smile appeared on her lips. Her eyes became even more unfocused for several seconds before a distant but audible pop could be heard. A few moments more and through the misty fog stepped Stardancer -- though returned to her alicorn status. She blinked a few times before focusing on the sisters. "Oh. Huh. I'm asleep, then?"

"So it would appear," Tia reported dryly, noting with interest the horn and wings Stardancer was now sporting, "You fell asleep."

Stardancer blushed and rubbed one forehoof with the other sheepishly, "Uhm, yeah. Sorry. It was kinda late." The power blue filly paused then ran a hoof through her white mane, eyes widening when her hoof hit her dream-horn. With a quick jerk of her head, Stardancer looked to her left and right, extending and pulling in her wings. "Oh! Oh, wow!" Her brows furrowed and she again turned her attention to the two sisters, "Wait... if both of you are here... does that mean you're in my dream?"

"I think we're all in mine," Tia replied with a shrug and a wave of her hoof, "Such as it is."

Stardancer blinked before looking to Luna. "I didn't know you could do that."

"I didn't either until this moment," Luna remarked thoughtfully, "I was actually trying to enter two dreams at the same time. It seems that I can bring ponies into the dreamscapes of others. Another aspect of my new powers."

Stardancer canted her head to one side, "Huh. Oneiromancy is a fairly unexplored magic as I said. I don't know if something like that has ever been observed before. Something more to test in the coming weeks, I suppose." An awkward pause ensued before Stardancer rubbed her forelegs together absently. "So, um. What now?"

"We could continue the experiments," Luna offered.

Tia paused then grinned broadly, levitating up the deck of cards, "Or! We could just have a little fun. Who's up for a game of Old Mare?"

Stardancer hesitated, gnawing on her lower lip at the prospect of more experimentation. But she had her horn again, even if only within the dreamscape. Playing cards with mouths and hooves was remarkably difficult. She smiled, her horn glowing as she telekinetically took the dream cards from Tia and began to shuffle, "Let's play."

***

The next few weeks were fairly uneventful as everypony settled into their respective routines. Stardancer's library had expanded from just the records room to encompass an entire wing of the old Town Hall, though most of that space was reserved for practical experimentation and applied magical research rather than books proper. While official standing policy was that the reversal of the spell and the restoration of alicorn status to the population at large were the primary focus of this research, in practice that research had been almost abandoned in exchange for magic of more immediate, practical use.

As Tia had thought, the scrounging became less and less productive and soon there was barely a trickle of useful materials being brought in for catalog and storage. The Long Patrol started up its function, the pegasi assigned to it being assigned on a rotation to prevent anyone from tiring out -- aside from Luna herself, who always accompanied the patrol in their mapping and reconnaissance missions.

The rubble surrounding the Town Hall had begun to be cleared as well and fields set up by those geo-equines with a knack for growing things. The former fields outside the town limits that had fed the town before the spell had been destroyed during the battle and there didn't seem to be any advantage to replanting them when they were so inconveniently far away from what was now the population center.

Nearly the entire population had their Cute Marks, excepting the foals. A tradition of celebrating each time a pony achieved one had appeared in the interim, ensuring that there was always a fresh cake available for the happy event (Tia had discovered that this new tradition was the reason she had enjoyed the dessert all those weeks ago when last the Voice spoke to her). The new tradition was a welcome respite from the gloomy facts of the community's existence; there had been few reasons to celebrate since the whole mess started, after all, and any occasion to spread a bit of joy was invaluable for morale.

The collapsed wing of the Town Hall had been repaired as well, and more buildings had been commissioned nearby to provide more private sleeping quarters; another quite welcome improvement in the quality of life. Of course, squabbles had started over who should get what quarters and where, with some ponies who already had quarters complaining that others had larger domiciles, but for the most part everyone grudgingly accepted the assignments -- the private areas were a limited resource and their use needed to be doled out judiciously.

For the first time since the whole disaster, Tia felt the burden lessening. Even her paperwork had abated slightly as the scrounging of resources and the need to catalog and distribute them waned. Most of that was replaced with other paperwork, but at least on the whole she came out ahead slightly.

Of course, such things were not to last.

Tia had begun to lower the sun in expectation of her sister's night when she noticed the lack of stars and moon. Tia frowned and stopped her manipulations of the solar sphere, keeping the time dusk as she got up from her desk and trotted out the door. It took her a bit to locate a pegasus Tia recognized as one who had Long Patrol duty the previous day.

"Azure Charger," Tia addressed the red coated pegasus, "Luna has not yet raised the moon and stars. Is she back from patrol yet?"

Azure Charger ran a hoof through his black mane, shaking his head, "No. It worries me. The patrol is usually back well before it is time for the sun to set."

Tia's lips tightened. "Even if they were delayed for some reason, I think my sister would take pause to at least make sure her celestial duties were performed. Where were they headed?"

"Sector forty-two," Azure Charger replied, "It is a bit of a fly away. If they discovered something particularly interesting to catalog, then maybe the lateness of the hour escaped them?"

"Maybe," Tia replied, frowning, "Though I would prefer to know for sure. Azure, I know you already went on patrol yesterday, but could you take a few pegasi out to sector forty-two and see what the problem may be, if any?"

Azure Charger saluted smartly and nodded, "It will be done." He turned quickly and headed off.

***

Sundown was delayed by several hours; without knowing the status of her sister, Tia had thought it prudent to keep the light up in case she was somehow unable to cast a light spell. A few ponies groused that the light made it difficult to sleep, but the murmurs of discontent were quickly silenced by the withering looks from others; a Long Patrol was way overdue, a worrying and unprecedented event. A little interrupted sleep was hardly worth worrying over.

A pegasus lookout on the tower of the Hall spotted the approaching figures against the golden-red glow of the setting sun and called out. Ponies turned out from the Hall and waited with baited breath for the figures to come into focus. Tia herself stood on the steps of the Hall, watching -- she wanted to unfurl her wings and fly to the approaching figures herself, but held herself in check. Staying with her little ponies was an important gesture.

As the figures approached, it became clear that they were ponies. Unfortunately, it was also abundantly clear that something was wrong. Several carried others on their backs, while others were flying in a distressed, erratic way. Tia watched with growing horror as the ponies got closer and the wounds on their bodies became visible. The group circled over the Hall briefly before coming in for a landing before the steps.

The wounded ponies were covered in bruises, scratches, and burns. The worst of them -- a pink pegasus with a yellow mane named Flitter Wing -- was in dire straights. One of her wings was little more than a burnt cinder and the cuts on her belly were deep and oozing blood onto the back of the pony who carried her. She moaned with pain as she was lowered to the ground, her blood seeping into the stone street. With an effort, Tia managed to tear her eyes away from the horrible sight and look over at the other ponies. To her intense relief, she saw her sister among them, looking bruised and battered, but otherwise unharmed.

"H-healers!" Luna called out, nearly out of breath, "We need healers now! Make way!"

There was a shuffling amongst the crowd as a few ponies stepped forward; two unicorns and a geo-equine. All three stared at the wounds in front of them, immobilized by shock.

"GET TO WORK, HEALERS!" Luna called out, her voice magically enhanced and causing several nearby ponies to wince and shrink away, "YOUR SERVICES ARE NEEDED!" The voice was enough to spur the three ponies into action as they swarmed over the wounded and began to examine the injuries.

"You there!" the geo-equine pointed to a seemingly random member of the crowd, "Go to the magical research wing and retrieve my potion saddlebag! It's the blue canvas one on the third desk to the right. Go, now!" After a moment of surprised pause, the pony in question galloped off back inside the Hall.

Tia wandered, almost dreamlike, down the steps and the crowd parted for her. She took care to step around the healer ponies administrating to the wounded and moved close to her sister. "Luna... what happened?"

Luna turned her head to look at Tia, her expression haunted. "A dragon. There was a dragon."

Hushed murmurs began filtering through the crowd of ponies, mutterings of incredulity and surprise. Tia, herself, found the answer difficult to believe; dragons were extinct as far as anyone knew. That one might be alive in this day and age was unfathomable.

Luna's eyes watered with unshorn tears as she turned back to stare at her beaten and broken patrol. "There was no warning, no chance to retreat. The great wyrm just attacked. It harried us every time we tried to fall back, making an amusement of our attempts. If Azure Charger and his group had not appeared and offered aid when they did, I fear the entire patrol would've been lost. Even then, if Flitter Wing hadn't charged the beast as a distraction, none of us would've made it back. It is through their bravery, valor, and loyalty that we stand here now."

The pony sent inside for the saddlebag came running out of the Hall with the bag in his mouth. The crowd parted to allow him through and he tossed it to the requested healer who caught it in a fairly deft move with her own mouth. She lowered the bag to the ground and began to rummage through it, eventually producing a small bottle with a swirling purple liquid. "Drink this, it will help with the pain," she murmured to the wounded pink pony who opened her mouth and chugged down the contents, coughing weakly.

The crowd watched in silence as the healer ponies worked, potions and magic healing wounds and easing pains.

But there was one pony for which their ministrations were useless.

In the dying light of the sun, Flitter Wing breathed her last, succumbing to her injuries.

More silence reigned as everypony stared at Flitter's corpse. Tia managed to tear her own eyes away and look at the assembled crowd, saw the dismay and horror in their features. The reality of death had hit home. None of them had seen their parents fall to the Cloud or be torn asunder by the spell; that had all remained in their imaginations. Now they had seen death in fact, not just in theory.

Tears began to fall down Luna's features briefly before her face hardened, eyes becoming as hard as steel. "This will not stand," she said in a voice deathly calm, eyes narrowing. In a sudden explosion of fury, her wings unfurled and her eyes took on a bright glow, voice echoing through the entire square, "BY THE MOON AND STARS ABOVE THIS WILL NOT STAND!" Powered by righteous fury and quaking in rage, Luna turned towards the direction in which they had escaped the dragon. "That wyrm will rue the day it thought to tangle with us ponies! I will see it battered and bleeding and rended scale for scale for this atrocity!" She whirled back on the still-shocked crowd and raised her head in a steely motion of confident defiance, "I will go and slay this foul beast. Is there any pegasus who wishes to stand with me?"

The crowd shuffled uncertainly, passing uneasy looks towards the wounded and the corpse of poor Flitter. Luna's countenance darkened. "Not one of you will stand and fight?" she asked tightly, "Not one among you will answer this injustice with the force it requires? Blood calls for blood!"

Again, the crowd shuffled, but a pegasus nudged his way from the crowd. "I'll fly with you," Sky Kicker stated with grim finality.

"I'd like a chance to tangle with the beast again," Azure Charger stated with a wry smile as he too stepped forward, "It got soot all over my feathers after all."

"I'll go too!" came a somewhat squeaky voice belonging to a blonde light brown pegasus known as Puffy Doo.

"Anypony else?" Luna asked, casting her eyes back and forth along the crowd. It was silent. "Very well. We will go and extract retribution."

"Wait!" Tia said, holding up a hoof, "I'll go too."

Luna paused, looking at her sister and suddenly seeming uncomfortable, "That is... not a good idea, Tia. You should stay here with everyone else."

"What?" Tia asked in confusion, her ears flattening against her head, "Why?"

"The task we do is dangerous," Luna explained, "And we two are the last of the alicorns. If the worst happens, then both of us would be lost. For that reason alone, only one of us should go."

Tia frowned and was about to protest further when Stardancer trotted forward, Silverhoof in tow, "Wait, before you go! I think we have a spell that might give you an advantage." She nudged Silverhoof who nodded and closed his eyes to concentrate, horn glowing. The glow encompassed each of the four ponies then slowly faded. Stardancer peered owlishly at them and nodded. "Okay, that was a spell that should give you all a bit of resistance against fire. I don't know if it will do any good against magic fire like a dragon is supposed to have, but at least it's something. Also..." She motioned to the crowd and a few ponies trotted forward and dropped some heavy objects in front of the group with a metallic clunk. "These are some magical weapons. You'd be hard pressed to get through dragon scales without it." Stardancer absently rubbed the back of her head and frowned, "To be honest, I don't know if even with them you'll be able to pierce the scales. I'm going off legends here and a few half-remembered facts about palaeontological studies that found dragon remains. But, again, better than nothing."

Each of the three pegasi picked up one of the weapons; Azure Charger taking a long lance, Puffy Doo taking a set of heavy shoes (experimentally stomping the ground and breaking a great many of the paving stones with a sheepish smile), and Sky Kicker taking up a pair of metallic fittings with sharpened edges that fit over his wings. Luna shook her head, "When I destroy the beast, I will do so with my own magic." She turned and extended her wings, "We will return soon. Tia, keep the sun up until you see the moon. That will be my signal that we have extracted our vengeance." With nothing else said, the dark alicorn flew up into the sky, followed closely by the other three.

Tia watched the figures grow smaller and the crowd began to disperse. Tia turned her eyes towards the cooling body of poor Flitter then motioned to her, "We need a place to store her body until... until funeral rites can be performed."

Stardancer nodded, "There's a section of the research wing we have been using for experiments with cold. We can store her there. She will... keep... for a while at least."

Tia nodded again then frowned as a thought came to her. She was unable to keep the suspicion out of her eyes as she peered at Silverhoof and Stardancer. "Stardancer," Tia said slowly, "Can I have a word with you, please? In private?" She stared pointedly at Silverhoof who stiffened and glared right back.

"O... of course," Stardancer said, blinking and turning to Silverhoof and placing a hoof on his shoulder, "I'll only be a moment. If you can arrange for Flitter to be stored..." Silverhoof sniffed lightly but nodded and headed off. Tia and Stardancer shifted away from the dispersing crowd.

"I find the timing of those weapons quite amazing, Stardancer," Tia said softly, peering owlishly at her friend, "To think you were able to build and enchant them just mere minutes between learning of the dragon and Luna heading off to kill the thing."

Stardancer shifted her stance uncomfortably, "I, uh. We actually... had them before this whole thing."

Tia nodded slowly, suspicions becoming confirmed. "I see. So you've been researching magical weapons? And even building some, no less." She rubbed her chin with a hoof, "How curious that I hadn't seen any reports or requests for it in the miles of paperwork I get. Maybe I just missed it."

Stardancer was unable to meet Tia's gaze, scuffing the paving stones beneath her hoofs shamefully. "W... we, uh... we didn't exactly make any request, Tia."

"Oh, I see," Tia remarked flatly, "That would explain it, then." Uncomfortable silence reigned for a few moments. "Care to elaborate on why you decided not inform me of this, Stardancer?"

The power blue geo-equine was still unable to meet Tia's gaze. "We... we didn't want to bother you with something like that," she said evasively.

"Didn't you," Tia replied dryly, "But there are plenty of other requests you deign deserve my attention. How curious that this one didn't."

Stardancer sighed and finally looked up at Tia, her face pleading as her ears flattened against her skull. "Look, we didn't tell you because we knew you wouldn't approve of it."

"You're bucking right I wouldn't approve!" Tia snapped, a bit more harshly than she intended, "Why are you making magical weapons when there are so many other things we need more?!"

Stardancer frowned and took a defensive posture, "Oh, and you're the one who gets to determine that? Look at what happened here today!" She jammed a hoof in direction of the bloodstained paving stones where Flitter once lay, "We need those weapons! Silverhoof said--"

"Silverhoof said?!" Tia shot back angrily, "Silverhoof doesn't see the big picture! Silverhoof is not the one who is duly appointed to manage the resources we have available! Silverhoof isn't the one who gives you bucking orders!"

"And you are?" Stardancer replied hotly, "Great job you've done so far!" Her voice took on a mocking sing-song tone, "Let's take a listing of what you've accomplished so far, shall we? Let's see, you've managed to cripple nearly everyone except for you and your sister, led to the death of a pegasus, and -- oh yes! -- murdered all our parents!"

Tia stared in shock at Stardancer's words, shrinking back against them, ears flattening against her head.

Assert control. Use your authority. Order her to cease her association with Silverhoof. Threaten her with removal of her status as librarian.

Tia frowned. She was in no mood to entertain the Voice at present. A different tack was called for. She turned a pained look to Stardancer, asking quietly, "Do you really think me a murderer, Stardancer?"

The power blue geo-equine seemed to suddenly take stock at what she said and brought a hoof to her mouth, eyes wide. Slowly, she dropped her hoof and lowered her eyes, her entire posture deflating somewhat, "I'm sorry, Tia. That was... that was way out of line."

Tia let out a sigh and set a comforting hoof on her friend's shoulder, "It's all right. Look, we both said things we shouldn't have here. You're right that I have been... a bit naive regarding our need for security as this event shows. But I can't make proper decisions if everypony keeps things from me, okay? I really need to know when you start these kind of research projects."

"Okay," Stardancer replied glumly.

Tia hesitated then dropped her hoof, her voice becoming tense. "And, as your friend, Silverhoof worries me."

Stardancer looked up at that and frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that... well, have you noticed that no geo-equine other than you is allowed in his little clique?" Tia shifted, "And then he goes about suggesting that you make weapons without informing me."

What are you doing? Tia ignored the Voice.

The expression on Stardancer's features became a sudden unreadable mask. "What are you saying?" she asked, voice carefully controlled.

Tia sighed heavily, "I mean that I think Silverhoof is using you, Stardancer. He's using your knowledge for his own ends. He doesn't seem to care for any of the other pony types except for unicorns, yet he's fine with you around. It's no secret that you're great at magic." Tia peered deeply into Stardancer's eyes, "I'm worried about you, Stardancer."

This is not the proper way! Tia could feel the cold outrage of the Voice.

Stardancer stared for a very long time back, her body becoming tight and coiled. "You're wrong about him," she replied, voice just as tight as her body, "He's my friend."

"I'm your friend, Stardancer," Tia insisted, "He's just using you. I... I want you to distance yourself from him, okay? I don't want to see you hurt is all."

Stardancer stared for a very long time back. "I don't believe it," she said slowly, voice still tight, "I wouldn't have thought it possible. I thought he was just hurt about everything, that he'd calm down eventually. But now I see he was right."

That was not the reaction Tia was expecting and she blinked in confusion, "Huh?"

You fool! the Voice screeched, You have squandered this chance! Tia's ear flickered, but she still steadfastly ignored the Voice.

"You're jealous of him!" Stardancer exclaimed, pointing an accusatory hoof towards Tia, "And of me! You're jealous because he was right and you can't admit it! You're jealous because I know so much magic, magic that you could perform if only you had that knowledge!" An expression of disgust morphed on her features, "You don't want anypony to disrupt the precious little world you've built here, so you try to keep everypony divided!"

Tia was stunned by the accusations, her jaw dropping. "What? No!" she said quickly, "Stardancer, you're wrong! I'm not jealous of anypony! If anypony is jealous, it's Silverhoof!"

Stardancer glared at Tia. "I thought you were my friend," she remarked coldly, "But you've been trying to keep me under hoof this entire time. How long has your envy boiled, Celestia? Did you plan to cripple me just so you could shine that much brighter?"

Again, Tia was stunned. "Wuh... how... but..." she sputtered, flabbergasted at her friend's accusations, "Stardancer, how could you even think that? You think I planned for that Cloud to attack us? For the spell -- your spell -- to backfire like this? How could I even start to do something like that, even if I were capable? Stardancer, this is madness!"

"A few hours ago, I would've thought so, too," Stardancer replied, glaring coldly, "I admit that you probably didn't plan the events that led us to this state, but once it happened..." She shook her head, "Too much lines up now." Stardancer started pacing back and forth, shooting daggered glanced at Tia as she walked, "You took control once this thing started and haven't let anypony get a word in edgewise. The only one who seems to even able to get through to you is your sister. You've constantly butted heads with Silverhoof because he opposed your plans. He listens to me, Tia! He doesn't just order me around!"

Tia flinched, frowning, "But... I listen to you as well."

"You demand things, Tia," Stardancer accused, "He inspires me. You demand the direction of my research, you make demands of my knowledge, you even make demands on who my friends are!"

Tia, yet again, was at a loss for words. She tried to put a comforting hoof on Stardancer's shoulder, only for the other filly to shrug it violently off. "Don't touch me!" she shouted, eyes swimming with unshed tears, "You never cared about me. You never cared!"

"That's not true! It's because I care that I don't want to see Silverhoof hurt you."

"Silverhoof isn't the one who made me a cripple!" the shout was loud and laced with resentment and buried anger. Stardancer blinked several times at her own voice and the invective it came out with before her face set in a hard line. "Silverhoof hasn't hurt me ever," she replied quietly, her voice a calm, "You took away everything I was or will be."

So there it was. Tia stared at Stardancer for a long while; she had no idea her friend had been harboring such extreme feelings for so long. If anything, Stardancer seemed to be holding up the best out of everypony. "You have every right to be mad at me, Stardancer," Tia replied softly, hanging her head, "It was my decisions that led to this. It is my responsibility." She lifted her head and pleaded with her former friend, "But just because you h-hate me doesn't mean I'm wrong. Silverhoof really is just using you. Whatever you think of me, just take a good look at him and how he acts, okay? See him for the pony he is, not the pony you wish him to be."

Stardancer glared at Tia for a moment more before nodding stiffly. "I'll take your request under advisement. If you'll excuse me, I have some things to attend to. Good day." She turned and walked back towards the Hall. Tia watched her leave sadly then, a few moments later, headed inside herself.

***

You failed. Tia glared as she walked through the Hall back to her office. "Shut up," she muttered to the Voice.

You let your supposed friendship blind you to the facts. Tia's jaw set. "Shut. Up."

Because of your actions, you not only drove a key resource further into league with your enemies, but also destroyed your trust and authority with that key resource. Had you followed instructions and merely ordered Stardancer away from Silverhoof, she would've continued to bury her resentment and anger and obeyed. By forcing it to the surface, she is now lost to you. Now, even threats to her position won't sway her. Furthermore, attempts to do so can be used against you by Silverhoof. They are worse than useless now.

"SHUT UP!" Tia shouted out in a fit of rage, drawing curious, confused looks from ponies in the hallway. She quickly silenced herself and shuffled to her office. "I did the right thing," she stubbornly insisted as she moved over to her desk and sat on her chair, "I did nothing wrong. She'll calm down in a few days and we can talk about this rationally. She... she wasn't being rational, you heard her. A bunch of conspiracy gibberish, none of it making any sense. Given time to think, she'll see I'm right."

Tia could feel the intense displeasure of the Voice, but it mercifully said nothing. She got down to work; technically she had already been done for the day, but she knew that sleep wouldn't find her with both her friendship to Stardancer in shambles and her sister out hunting a dragon of all things. It was better to be productive.

How long she toiled over her work, Tia didn't know. But she chanced a look upwards and saw that the moon was up through the window. Luna had succeeded.

But instead of the pale white the moon was normally colored, this time it was blood red.

***

Stardancer was avoiding her.

Tia had tried to talk to her in the library the next day only to discover that she had gone with Silverhoof on a field trip to examine some geological formations found by the Long Patrol previously.

When she returned two days later, she had sequestered herself in the private laboratory with Silverhoof and a few other unicorns with orders that she was not to be disturbed. Tia considered forcing her way inside, but decided against it.

Tia had next seen Stardancer in the communal eating area. The geo-equine had taken one look at her then quickly thrown away her half-eaten lunch before beating a hasty retreat. Tia was getting fed up with her former friend's behavior.

There was, however, an event coming that she would undoubtedly be attending and wouldn't be able to flee from. Unfortunately, that event was Flitter Wing's funeral. Hardly the best time or place to try and repair a friendship, but it would do.

It had taken a while to narrow down the particulars of the funeral, such as where to put the body for its final resting place. A suggestion was made that a funeral pyre and cremation be used, but many had balked at that considering dragonfire was the cause of her death. On the other hand, a burial underground seemed poorly fit for a pegasus. In the end, the decision was made to magically reduce the body to its most base components. Luna would have that task; she felt it important as the pegasus had fallen under her watch.

The affair was solemn as one would expect. Flitter's body, cleaned up and repaired as best as possible and kept free from decomposition via preservation magics, lay in a casket atop a small stone dais constructed in the square outside the Hall. Tia recognized the work on the casket as one of the geo-equines who had a predilection for woodwork; she was invaluable for constructing the housing that was now popping up.

One by one, each of the community went up to the dais and paid their last respects. Tia noted that some ponies had taken to wearing clothes of dark colors for the occasion; she hadn't authorized making any clothes, but this would be an exception. Ponies needed to mourn in their own way. The pegasi who had been with Flitter during the ill-fated Long Patrol had taken to wearing black bands around their right forehooves. Luna was among those who did.

It came at last to Tia's turn to walk up the steps of the dais and peer into the seemingly sleeping face of Flitter for the last time. She felt so alone as she climbed up the dais and peered into the casket. For a long, terrible moment Tia saw every failure, every bad decision since this whole thing began encapsulated in that prone pegasus form. "I'm sorry," she whispered to the corpse, "I'm sorry... for everything." Despite attempting to keep control of her emotions, she was unable to keep the tears from falling. With steps that felt leadened by weights, Tia turned away from the casket and walked away, leaving only Luna as the last pony to step up to the dais.

"Brave heart, little one," Tia heard Luna say softly to Flitter's form, reaching out with a hoof to gently brush the mane of the pegasus. Luna turned around and sat on the dais, looking out at the crowd of mourning ponies. "Was there anyone who wished to say something before we commit this body to its final rest?"

"I have something to say," a voice called out. A sea of heads swung around to gaze at the figure who spoke up. To Tia's surprise, it was Silverhoof. He walked solemnly to the dais and turned around, taking a deep breath. "This is, indeed, a sorrowful day for all of us," he said, "But we must remember that whatever mistakes of the past lead us to this tragic end--" Silverhoof stared pointedly at Tia and everypony's eyes shifted to where he looked. "--they can be corrected. We can try -- neigh, will! -- do better in the future. We must, if not for ourselves, than for Flitter's sake. Thank you."

Tia glared at the white pony as he stepped away from the dais as she felt anger rising up in her. How dare he use this as some kind of political tool to undermine her position! A pony was dead! With an effort, Tia composed herself, taking a deep breath. Blowing up here would sully the event even further and play right into Silverhoof's hooves. She was, however, pleased to see that Luna had fixed the unicorn with an unhappy frown as did the majority of other pegasi.

"Let us now commit this body to its final rest," Luna said turning her way towards the casket. Gentle music rose through the square from a cadre of ponies with musical instruments, some salvaged others home made. Despite the crudeness of the tools, however, the music itself was clear and sweet. More than one pony in the audience began to weep. Luna closed her eyes as her horn began to glow with her dark light, the glow enveloping Flitter's body which began to glitter with a million points of multicolored light. Each one of the lights rose up, taking a tiny portion of Flitter's body with it, swirling around in dazzling patterns before the casket. In a scant few moments, her entire body was gone and only the swirling mass of lights remained.

The lights stopped their swirling and just hovered there in place for a heartbeat before suddenly zooming off with a speed unknown towards a point in the sky. At that point a new star appeared, yellowish in color and glowing brightly. The illumination from Luna's horn faded and she opened her eyes, letting out a heavy sigh as she turned around once more. "Let it forever be known that for her bravery and sacrifice, Flitter Wing has been granted a star in the heavens. Flitter's Star."

The pegasi of the Long Patrol took up position on either side of Luna, drawing themselves up in a tight, surprisingly regimented stance then saluted smartly.

The music faded away and ponies began to shuffle away, towards an area that had been set up with refreshments. Tia had allocated whatever food was requested for this. She'd find a way to make up the difference if a shortfall happened.

Ponies began to split off into groups, chatting quietly and exchanging stories of the departed Flitter. Tia noted to her shame that she had barely interacted with the pegasus in question. She made a note to be more mindful of every one of her little ponies. First, however, she saw Silverhoof and Stardancer a little ways away, talking quietly. Tia approached and cleared her throat.

Stardancer and Silverhoof looked over, the former looking a bit awkward and the latter appearing slightly smug. "Ahh, our glorious leader," the white unicorn stated with false cheer, "How good of you to deign to come down to us little ponies for this occasion. How did you enjoy my little speech?"

Tia fought down her rising anger and forced a smile on her features. "It was... adequate, I suppose."

"I thought you might like it," Silverhoof replied, the smirk on his face deepening.

"I don't think the pegasi did, however," Tia noted coolly. Silverhoof's mask of smugness slipped slightly. "I have something to discuss with Stardancer. Do you mind?"

Silverhoof frowned deeply and looked to the blue geo-equine in question. She offered a sad smile to the unicorn and nodded, "It's all right. Go enjoy the snacks." Silverhoof grunted and cast one last suspicious look to Tia before heading away.

Tia and Stardancer stood in awkward silence for a while. "So..." Tia began uneasily, but found further words didn't come.

"So..." Stardancer repeated, squirming a little in place. More awkward silence followed before the geo-equine took a deep breath and spoke, "I said some unkind things, Tia. Some... really silly things. I am deeply sorry about that."

Tia smiled wryly and nodded, "That's all right. You were upset. We both were."

"It's not..." Stardancer frowned, her words fading off. She took another deep breath and tried again, "I didn't realize how mad I was at you, Tia. It's unfair, I know that, but I can't help what I feel. When you... when you tried to split me from Silverhoof -- using our friendship no less -- I kinda had it all come to the surface. I didn't mean most of what I said. I was just trying to find a way to hurt you. I'm sorry." Tia was about to reply before Stardancer raised a hoof to prevent it, "That said... I meant the feelings behind it. Tia, I... I'm sorry. But I don't think I'm a big enough pony to forgive you. I know it's not your fault. I know it! But whenever I look at you now..." her voice faded off and she looked down at the ground, "...All I see is that night and everything that I lost." Her eyes focused on Tia's horn. "And everything you have."

Tia felt her already heavy heart sink even further, her ears flattening against her head. "You... you mean... you don't want to be friends any more?"

Stardancer offered a small, apologetic smile, "I'm sorry, Tia. I really am. I tried to forgive you -- I really did! I just... can't." She straightened herself, "Which is not to say that I can't work with you in a professional way. I can still maintain the library and direct magical research under your order." She hesitated, then added, "Though if you feel us no longer being friends means that you can't reciprocate, I'll... I'll resign and let someone else take the post."

A cold numbness at the finality of the death of the friendship hit Tia and she found her legs wobbly. With an effort, she managed to steady herself and offered a small, sad smile of her own. "I don't think that'll be necessary. As long as you can perform your duties acceptably, we can work together. Even if we're no longer f... friends." Tia felt tears well in her eyes again but fought them back. "Though I still expect to be informed of all research matters no matter what. No more secret research."

"I think I can handle that," Stardancer replied with a faint upwards twitch of her lips before looking over to where Silverhoof conversed with some other ponies, "But I think I left my associate for long enough. Thank you for the talk, Tia. Good evening."

Tia watched her former friend walk away sadly and slumped in the street. She gazed around the various groups of ponies surrounding her -- all chatting away with friends -- and noted that even Luna was surrounded with pegasi with which whom she conversed.

It suddenly struck Tia that there was something far worse than being all alone by oneself.

Being all alone in a crowd.

***

Weeks turned into months and months into years. It was astonishing how quickly routine could assert itself and become the clockwork of society. Fillies and colts grew to mares and stallions while foals grew to fillies and colts. Time waited for no pony, not even the two last remaining alicorns.

Her desk which had seemed so large just a few years prior now seemed rather on the small side as Celestia peered at it. Both she and Luna had grown along with the rest of the population, but they had become titans among ponies, easily overshadowing even the most burly of stallions in size. It was something of a minor embarrassment when she went to visit some of the houses that made up the community -- inevitably she would bump her head on some stud or beam.

Everypony had their own housing by now, except for herself and Luna who had elected to remain in the Hall. It was close to where they most needed to be anyway, and it seemed a waste to just let a wing of the Hall lay abandoned. With only two ponies, the cramped conditions had ceased to be an issue and Celestia had managed to secure a few accouterments for their private quarters that made it more comfortable and homey. That said, Luna spent more time out with the Long Patrol in the Cloud Fortress these days; they had mapped everything close to the settlement and performing due diligent scouting now required a mobile base and days away from town.

Celestia was broken out of her desk inspection by the door opening and Stardancer trotting inside. The rainbow-maned alicorn smiled at the powder blue earth-pony (the term 'geo-equine' fell out of fashion over the years -- the word was a bit unwieldy in syllable count, especially for a group which tended to have a much more practical mindset than other ponies). Their friendship had never recovered, but they still enjoyed an easy, mostly friction-free professional relationship. "Stardancer, hello! It's unusual to see you come to see me."

"Hello, First Pony Celestia," Stardancer replied, smiling back. Celestia winced at the title; it had been assigned to her as a means of snidely needling her authority. Celestia had originally tried to stop it's use, but that seemed to just make it spread faster. In the end, she allowed it and it had lost its satiric sting. But that didn't mean she didn't remember its original function. "I have some quite exciting news."

"Oh?" Celestia asked, leaning forwards, "Do tell."

"I think I might have a breakthrough in the Alicorn Project."

Celestia blinked. "Truly?" she asked in surprise. Although still on the books and being classified as the single most important research done, very little attention is paid to it normally. Most ponies had just accepted the fact that alicorn hood is a thing of the past.

Stardancer nodded enthusiastically, "Oh yes! I don't want to say too much right now -- we're going to perform the critical experiment tomorrow, around dawn -- but if it works, it will be an important step towards alicorn hood for normal ponies."

"That is good news!" Celestia exclaimed, her spirits quite high, "You believe we may be able to reverse the spell soon?"

Stardancer hesitated then offered a wan shrug, "Honestly? No. Probably not within my lifetime at least. But each step is important to that goal. With luck, our descendants will once again know the joys of all three pony races."

Celestia's excitement calmed and she smiled wryly, "I guess that's true." She paused then peered at her compatriot curiously, "Was that all? It seems odd to come all the way here to tell me about a potential experiment that might be a breakthrough. Usually you wait for something concrete before talking to me."

Stardancer fidgeted slightly and offered a shy smile. "There, um. There was something else..." Celestia nodded and gestured Stardancer to continue. She took a deep breath and spoke again, "I would like to request a new housing allotment." She hesitated then added, her cheeks flushing, "For two, with expansion possibilities."

Celestia blinked again, canting her head, "You mean...?"

A sappy grin formed on Stardancer's features and she shrugged, "Silverhoof proposed. We, uh... we've been keeping our relationship under wraps -- it might bring up the specter of jealousy considering how we work together -- but yes. We're special someponies."

Celestia's pleasure at seeing her former friend happy and enjoying romance was strained slightly by the pony involved in said romance. She schooled her features to hide those thoughts, though, and smiled widely, "Congratulations! I'm sure a new housing allotment can be provided easily enough."

"Thank you, Celestia," Stardancer replied with a sigh of relief, "It's a weight off my mind."

"Think nothing of it," Celestia responded. In truth, she had known of Stardancer and Silverhoof's relationship for some time. The rumor mill in the settlement was forever churning out gossip. Celestia had tried to be the bigger mare and ignore it, but no matter what one always hears tongues wagging. She did hope that this was one of the cases where the rumor mill was wrong; Silverhoof still grated on her after all these years and his continual needling in the weekly town meeting was tiresome. She was also pretty sure he was responsible for the 'First Pony' title, but couldn't prove it.

"Well, that's all, then," Stardancer stated cheerfully, moving through the door, "I'll contact you tomorrow morning to report how our experiment went." Celestia waved a hoof at Stardancer and smiled to herself. This was a good day.

***

Celestia awoke the next morning to a surprise.

The sun was already up.

Celestia stared out the window of her suites in confusion, canting her head one way and the other as her sleepy mind tried to jumpstart at the impossibility of what she was seeing.

After staring blankly at the sun didn't reveal it's secrets to her, the alicorn grumbled and struggled to her hooves, trotting out into the foyer of the Hall. Dragging a brush along her messy mane as she walked, Celestia's trot slowed as she looked out from the stairs to the square below. There she saw a set of six unicorns (as well as a powder blue earth-pony taking notes on the sidelines) arranged as points in a chalk outline of a starburst, each arm of the burst covered in glowing runes. Celestia frowned as she trotted out, stepping down the stairs to the group.

Stardancer looked up from her notes and smiled beatifically at Celestia as she approached. "Good news!" she exclaimed, "Our experiment was a complete success! We have raised the sun."

Celestia saw the wicked grin on Silverhoof's features from his position in the starburst.

***

Celestia kept her face purposefully stoic as she listened to Silverhoof speak to the assembly.

"I'm merely suggesting that we alleviate some of the burden on our illustrious First and Second Pony," he said, motioning a hoof towards the section where Celestia and Luna sat, "We have already proven -- repeatedly -- that a set of properly trained and magically gifted unicorns can raise the sun as well as the moon and stars without the need for their involvement."

"It is still an unnecessary burden for unicorns to take!" Luna shot back, her brow betraying her worry, "I assure you, my sister and I are quite capable of raising the sun and moon without needed to bother anypony else."

"No pony is doubting your abilities, Second Pony Luna," Silverhoof smoothly replied, "We are merely saying that a burden shared is one lessened. Besides which, surely you would agree that we should have some kind of recourse if -- Heavens Forbid -- the worst should happen and one or both of you be unable to perform your sacred duties?"

"Well, yes, but--"

"And the best way to ensure that is have we unicorns aid in this task," Silverhoof smiled and looked to the assembly of ponies, "This is a new magic and we should get practice. The full use of this power is only to be used in case of emergency, of course."

"There's wisdom in what he says," Sky Kicker grumbled out uneasily, "Second Pony Luna... we are often far away from here. The Cloud Fortress does a perilous task and we encounter many strange beasts and dangers. It would be better for everypony if you could retain your strength to aid us, rather than expending it on something the unicorns can do just as well."

"It would be a grave thing indeed," Silverhoof intoned with a sorrowful voice, "If another Flitter Wing happened because you were too tired from raising the moon and stars to prevent another incident."

Luna paled (quite impressive for the dark alicorn) and she flinched as if physically struck. "The... the raising of the moon and stars cause me no great discomfort or drain of energy..."

"Are you willing to risk the lives of others for that, Second Pony?" Silverhoof challenged, "If you feel there really is no possibility of you needing that extra magic -- no matter how small it might be of your reserves -- then I will withdraw the motion."

Luna grimaced and looked pleadingly to her sister for assistance. Celestia remained starkly silent, face a stony mask.

Silverhoof smiled thinly, "This power should not be retained for the grandiose exultation of a single pony's ego, especially considering its difficulty. It is better for everypony if the power is disseminated among many." He looked around at the assembly, "Is there a second for the unicorns accepting this great burden?" There was a shuffling of pony bodies before a hoof went up, followed by several more. Soon the entire room was filled with upraised hooves.

"The motion, I think, is carried."

***

"And why stay here in the womb when there are wonders and riches out among the lands!" Silverhoof shouted to the assembled ponies, "With the maps provided by the Long Patrol, I say we can forge our own destinies! With the military power of the pegasi, the work ethic of the earth-ponies, and the mastery of the sun, moon, and stars of we unicorns, I say we can bring forth a much greater world for all of pony kind!"

The stomp of hooves in applause filled the assembly hall.

The sound abruptly stopped when the double doors flew open revealing Celestia in all her glory. Eerie silence reigned as she walked down the long way towards where Silverhoof was giving his speech, her eyes searching back and forth among the ponies assembled -- some of which turned away, others which returned her look with one of hostility.

"I see my sister and I have become so unimportant to the running of this settlement that neither of us is to be informed when there is a special meeting," Celestia called out to the crowd.

Silverhoof smiled at Celestia with false sincerity, "First Pony Celestia, you grace us with your presence." He swept a hoof along the assembly hall, "We merely didn't want to disturb you or your sister for something of such insignificance. You both have done so much to -- I mean to say, for -- us that none felt it appropriate to bother you with such quibbles. Your sister is still with the Long Patrol is she not?"

Celestia glared at the unicorn. "That she is. But my personal burdens are not so great as a meeting such as this would cause me undue distress," she replied, "Especially as it seems I no longer raise the sun at all and haven't for some time."

"You should enjoy your newfound freedom from such chores, First Pony," Silverhoof stated with a condescending tone of sarcasm, "Besides, this is a private meeting and not open to every pony in town; only a select few. Unless you plan to reveal yourself for the tyrant you are and force this assembly to disperse."

Celestia scowled at Silverhoof. "I am no tyrant," she spoke in a quiet voice before looking over at the assembled ponies, "And everyone here should know it. If I truly am this villain, I would not have let this demagogue stand." She motioned with a hoof towards Silverhoof. "He speaks of riches and wealth and land, but look at what we've built here. Isn't what we have better than some fanciful chasing of wonders you may not even find?"

"Spoken like a pony who has never had to navigate your labyrinthine bureaucracy, Celestia," Silverhoof snorted in reply, "Every request, every momentary whim must be scanned, searched, catalogued, stamped, folded, and filed by you." He stabbed a hoof in her direction. "When Orange Glad wanted more room for an orchard, how long did it take before he was ultimately denied? When Copper Gear needed permission for a new mill, how many forms did she need to fill out before you were satisfied?" He turned to address the crowd, "I am offering true freedom, Celestia! A chance for every pony to carve out his or her own bit of happiness, rather than having to bow and scrape and beg to you for to relent. Is not a pony entitled to the work of his own horn, wing or hoof?" He spread his forehooves out to the crowd, "What say you all?!"

Another raucous round of hoof-stomps revealed the crowd's attitude.

***

"We're leaving," Stardancer said uneasily, shifting in place as she watched the wagon loaded with books and papers. It was one of several arrayed out in a long train, pulled by earth-ponies with unicorns riding along.

"So I see," replied Celestia.

"We're heading to the north," Stardancer offered hesitantly, "The Long Patrol reported some interesting gems out in that direction. I think they might have magical properties."

Celestia pursed her lips and nodded. "Well, that's good, I suppose."

Stardancer sighed, running a hoof through her mane, "First Pony Celestia... Tia. I know you think we're doing this in some kind of fit of pique. But... it's just time for us to move on. You've done well with us since the spell -- even Silverhoof will admit it. Grudgingly, but he will. We just... can't stay like this forever. We have to forge our own destiny."

"You have to do what you feel is right, of course."

Stardancer hesitated and offered a faint smile. "Well, not everypony is leaving," she offered hopefully, "There will still be plenty of ponies around for you to... um... do what you do."

Celestia bowed her head and sighed, "I suppose that is true. But with so many leaving... we're going to have trouble with a labor shortage. Especially considering only a handful of unicorns are staying."

Stardancer awkwardly patted her former friend on the shoulder, "It won't be as bad as all that. I'll send word once we're settled."

"Thank you," Celestia replied with a faint smile, "I... I would like to know if my -- if all those little ponies made it."

"It will be done," Stardancer stated, then turned to continue packing up the wagons.

***

More and more ponies over the ensuing weeks left, some to follow Silverhoof to the north, others to spread out elsewhere. Celestia had seen them all go. The Voice had cried at her to prevent them from leaving with a show of force, but she had ignored it. If those ponies didn't want to stay, she couldn't think of a reason to make them. They might be making a mistake, but it was theirs to make.

One good thing about ponies leaving was a reduction in paperwork. Silverhoof was right in one way -- Celestia was overburdened. It did take her too long to see and respond to requests. She had tried to shoulder that burden alone and ponies had suffered because of it. Now, however, there didn't seem to be a point in trying to reverse it; the work continually slowed as more left. It was no great problem for one pony any more.

With a burst from the door, Luna suddenly entered Celestia's office and slumped down in front of the desk.

Celestia looked up from her meager work and blinked at her sister. "Something wrong?"

Luna crossed her forehooves over her chest in an amusingly childish display of grumpiness. "The Long Patrol is disbanding."

"Oh," Celestia murmured. It was something that gave her sister a much needed purpose. Now that neither of them handled things of a cosmic nature, that was even more sorely missed. "I'm sorry Luna."

"It can't be helped," Luna said with a sigh, "Too many pegasi have left to make the patrol viable. I hear that some are making an entire city out of clouds. I suppose they have gotten used to the Cloud Fortress."

Celestia paused. "Any idea what will happen to the fortress itself?"

Luna waved a hoof idly, "It will fall apart in time. It's only made of cloud, after all."

Celestia looked at her sister and frowned. "Are you going to be okay?"

Luna paused for a long moment before sighing again. "I don't know. Dear sister, it feels like we wronged somewhere, but where I cannot fathom. Everyone and everything is slipping away. I... I thought we had it all fixed; the heavens were secure and all was right in the world. We were making progress to reversing the spell's curse. Then it all fell apart."

Celestia regarded her sister for a long while before offering a smile. "Hey, wanna help me with paperwork? Hardly as exciting as the Long Patrol, but it's something. I could use the help."

Luna paused then offered a smile of her own, moving around to the desk beside her sister, "All right. Teach me."

***

"...We're thinking of going to the coast," Brown Betty said to Celestia, sheepishly rubbing her forehoof, "Word is there's a settlement there made entirely of earth-ponies. Should be a good place to start." She looked around the mostly abandoned town, the quiet of the place made her shudder as she looked back to the wagon. "We should get there in about three weeks time, if our luck holds."

Celestia and Luna sat as Brown Betty talked to them, both alicorns idly watching the wagon loaded up.

"I'm sorry to leave," Brown Betty said when no response was forthcoming, "It's just... there's not really anything for us here any more. We have to make our own way."

Celestia offered the earth-pony a small, tired smile, "It's all right. We understand." She reached forward and enveloped the mare in a hug, "Take care of yourself and your family."

Brown Betty hugged back, sniffling softly. "I will," she assured the alicorn before releasing the hug. She hesitated then offered a small, twitchy smile, "You... you both can come with if'n you'd like? I'm sure the other ponies would be fine with that."

Celestia and Luna looked at each other than back to the mare, both shaking their heads. "We would be welcomed, perhaps," Luna intoned, "But not for very long. The old resentments would bubble to the surface again and eventually everyone would leave. A repeat of this."

Brown Betty nodded. "Well. The offer's open should you ever consider it." She looked to her family -- her husband, a filly, and two foals, all crawling into the overstuffed wagon. "Well, looks like my family's fixin' to go. Thank you for the food. I don't think we'd rightly make it if you hadn't been so generous."

"There's plenty left in the larder," Celestia replied with a faint smile, "And our magic will allow us to keep farming." Her smile widened, and she winked, "Looks like I'll learn to do an honest days work after all."

Brown Betty let out a string of laughter before nodding to the pair of alicorns and turning to climb on the wagon. With a lurch, it started to go forward, slowly creaking its way down the empty streets of the community.

Luna and Celestia watched them go until they disappeared over the horizon.

"They're the last," Luna said with finality.

"They were," Celestia replied.

Silence reigned between the two sisters before Luna turned to Celestia. "What do we do now?"

Celestia paused before a look of determination spread on her features. "We continue. We keep trying to find a way to reverse that spell. It's all we can do."

Luna nodded once and the pair rose and turned to head back into the Hall, the empty streets a silent witness to the last remaining alicorns in the world.

Author's Note:

Whew!

Long chapter here, guys. I hope it isn't too much of a burden to read.