• Published 17th Nov 2011
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Fallout: Equestria- The Last Sentinel - Adder1



It's hard to kill memories when you remember everything.

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Reflection Twenty-Two: Event Horizon

Reflection Twenty-Two: Event Horizon

War, war never changes.

It never has. It never will. It always destroys, destroys equinity, creation, life, ingenuity. War is like an empty void that swallows everything up and still hungers for more.

“I regret that… the worst of times now lie ahead of us. That which I feared and tried to prevent…

“Parliament has overturned our unanimous veto.

“Equestria is at war.”

Switched off the radio. Didn’t need to hear any more. And, glancing at Luna, only just starting to slip out of bed, frozen as the announcement was made… neither did she.

Shifted slightly and looked at her, seated on the opposite side of the mattress. She seemed so statuesque. Absolutely still, save for her ethereal mane and tail. Couldn’t see her face, couldn’t see her eyes. Didn’t have an idea what was on her mind.

Until she spoke.

“How dare they,” she whispered. She inhaled deeply and swelled as if with rage. And she was trying very hard to control it. Kept her tone flat, even, quiet. Knew she was containing it all. “How dare they. Who are they to think that war, any kind of war is best for Equestria? How dare they. They have not tasted war, they don’t know war, they cannot comprehend war. How dare they.”

I twisted around and crawled closer to her side, looking up to her. Her expression was hard, lips twisted into a harsh frown, eyes glaring at the floor. I didn’t know what to say. My words failed me. What could I say to her? What did I know about war?

She glanced at me briefly, and her glare grew feeble. Her eyes narrowed to hide it, and she flattened her lips. “Six-thousand years, Frost. Six-thousand-one-hundred-two years I’ve been alive. I lived through the Age of Discord, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Empires, now the Age of Industry. I’ve seen too many wars in my time. Boundaries shifted, cities burned, families torn or wiped clean. I have waged my own wars. Without. And within.”

She turned to me. Her voice croaked, “How dare they.”

My heart fell at that. The last time I heard that strained tone… seven years ago, when I first learned who she really was. Only just one floor down, when she pleaded me to stay and listen.

And now it was my turn.

I opened my forelegs and drew her into a tight hug. She could only lean in to accept it. Couldn’t feel it. Couldn’t hear it. Couldn’t see it. But I still knew the tears were flowing.

“Why didn’t they listen to us?” she asked in a whisper to conceal her shaky tone. “Why didn’t they listen to me?”

Just held her tight as I could. Tried to comfort her with my strength. What little I had.

She pulled away at last, letting out a deep breath and avoiding my gaze. Still tried to hide it. “Sorry. I… I just… sorry.”

“Don’t be,” I finally spoke. Softly, helpless, unable to help. Wanted to say they would learn soon enough. Wanted to say something, anything that could comfort her. But I couldn’t say anything that wasn’t a lie. So I asked- softly, helpless, unable to help, “How can I help?”

She looked at me with those eyes, so full of everything, now so sad. So, so sad. Reached out to cup her cheek and tilted in close. Our foreheads met, and we both closed our eyes. She reached to cup my cheek, mirroring me.

“Just be here for me, Frost.”

The storyteller glanced downward briefly, falling quiet. Then eyes back on the audience.

Nightingale, folks. Nightingale. No goddess, no princess, no Luna.

Just a pony. Like you or me. Equine. With her own moments of strength- and weakness. With her own triumphs- and failures. Just a pony. A pony who’s lived too long, seen too much, wishes desperately for others to realize it all… a pony with the dream of a normal death. A pony who cannot stop- can never stop- and yet can’t help but look back at what- and who- was left behind. A pony who needed someone, anyone, to help her bear the burden. And only a few could do that for her.

And she could never let anyone else know. Because she was Princess Luna. And people had to see her that way.

I could see it all in those eyes. Eyes full of everything. Because they’d seen everything.

“I will,” I told her. “I will.”

She rested both hooves on my shoulders- and mine on hers. We met lips. Shortly, sweetly, softly. When she pulled away, she whispered,“I’m going to… I’m going to have to see to preparations. I expect Zebrica to declare war on Equestria in turn. I’ll be back, love, just… please be here for me.”

“I know,” I whispered back. “And I’m not going anywhere. That’s a promise, Nightingale.”

Our foreheads met again, and she gripped my shoulders tightly before pulling away… and disappearing in a flash of light.

* * *

Later that day. While I was preparing for Monday’s lecture.

There was a rapid knocking at the door- so rapid. Could only be one pony in all of Equestria

“Hey, Pinkie,” I greeted after opening up for her, smiling softly.

“Hi, Frost,” she greeted, mirroring my smile. She never smiled softly before. Always broad, always bright. And she never just said ‘Hi, Frost.’ Was always. ‘Hey, Frost,’ ‘Hi there, Frost,’ ‘How’s it hanging, Frost?’ Never just… ‘Hi, Frost.’ The bubble gum-pink mare nodded inside in question, and I stepped aside to let her in.

Shutting the door behind her and sublimating my arm, we stood in awkward silence. We never did that before. “So,” I murmured.

“So…” she murmured. Never before.

“Heard the news?”

She nodded. “I had the elbow twitch and lip tingle. That means Luna is sad. I also had the tail flick and hoof jitter. That… means you’re sad. Then I heard the news...”

I didn’t say anything. Only watched her.

“Will you both be okay?” she asked.

“I… I don’t know,” I said with a misty sigh, shaking my head.

“Wanna hit Scratch’s place tonight?” she said in offer, smiling a little more. “You know… with Lyra and Bon Bon? Like old times?”

“Like old times,” I chuckled softly, huskily. “You say that as if we’re already old.”

Pinkie giggled and snorted softly at that. “So… you wanna?”

“Sure,” I said with a growing smile to match hers, even if forced.

She nodded and said softly, “You know, I… had the nose crinkle, mane tug, tail twitch, half-blink, stomach rumble, tongue tingle, and ear flop. That means everything ends in sunshine and rainbows.”

My smile faltered somewhat. “Do you really think so?” I asked.

She just maintained her smile. “I know so,” she said quietly and left a token rub on my shoulder before taking her leave.

I didn’t know whether she was telling the truth or lying just to make me feel better.

The storyteller looked outside the opening of the train car.

Hasn’t been the first time Pinkie Pie lied to me.

He let out a long, misty sigh.

Luna was right. Later that morning, Zebrica responded to Equestria’s declaration of war with its own.

* * *

That evening.

“Hey, uh… hey, Frost.”

“Hey, Zoleks. Just… just calling to see how you and your family are doing. That’s all.”

Deep breath. “Hoo, us? Well, we’re… okay, we’re honestly a little… ugh, horseapples, buck, I don’t know how I feel about all this. I mean, my parents are immigrants. You know that. Hay, I was born there. Only spent a few years of my life there, but… still.”

“I know what you mean.”

Snort. “Really? You know what it’s like basically learning your kin are now the enemy?”

A few seconds of silence. “It only took ten days for me to tear it down, Zoleks.”

“Oh… right. Uh, sorry. Just, ugh, I really don’t know what to feel about all this.”

“It’s fine. Neither do I.” Deep sigh. “You going to be alright?”

“Hope so… you? You sound pretty shaken up too, buck.”

“Heh, well… I’m kind of the equinpologist here. I can’t bring myself to antagonize Zebrica- it’s a wonderful country with a culture as rich as ours. It all just… it doesn’t seem real.”

Sigh. “Yeah… I understand.”

“Look, I’ll… just stay safe, okay? All of you. Namira, Jorund, your parents. And let me know if anyone gives you any trouble, you hear?”

“Heh… sure. Alright.” Slow inhale. “Take care, then?”

“Yeah… take care.”

Click.

* * *

A month-and-a-half later.

Looked up the rows at all the bright young minds- my newest students of the fall quarter. Not a single cell phone to be found.

The storyteller cracked a thin smile.

Word had gotten around by then.

Room suddenly fell quiet. Never was that way before. Followed the gazes to one of the entryways, and there I saw why. A group of zebra students. They tried to ignore the stares, but I could see the quiver of their legs, the dry gulps of their throats. They moved toward the front row, and suddenly the ponies, griffins, and the lone mule already sitting nearby began to vacate them.

“Hold it,” I said firmly, authoritatively. With the room already dead silent, they could all definitely hear me. And they froze just as fast as my water. All eyes on me. The acoustics in the room were finely tuned for the best lecture experience. Every clip and clop of my hoof was distinctly audible as I made my way toward the group of students, standing between the zebras and the others. Looked from them to the rest of the class. “Well? Anyone care to explain?”

My eyes played elevator up and down the rows for what seemed like eons. Could hardly count how many squeamish souls shifted in their seats. Finally, an earth pony opened his mouth, “We’re… we’re at war with the zebras, professor.”

I grimaced. A new collective gulp was audible from the rows close enough to see me. “And who told you this?”

“My parents, professor,” he responded.

“Your parents,” I parroted, then I looked about the others. “Was that what they told the rest of you?”

Murmurs of affirmation, some audible replies, and a few nods answered in reply.

I inhaled deeply and moved closer to the zebra students. A couple of them flinched. Lowered my head to their level and asked, “Where’s home for you?”

One of the mares answered, “Trottin’am, professor.”

She definitely had the accent. “And how long did you live there?” I asked with an easy smile.

“All my life, professor.”

I looked at the others. “How about the rest of you?”

“Cowhoun. Reckon’ Ah’m the second generation of native Equestrians.”

“Canterlot, sir. I admit my parents immigrated over, but I assure you I am of Equestrian birth and citizenship.”

“Fillydelphia, and I’m an Equestrian through and through, Doctor Windchill.”

“Manehattan, born and raised.”

My eyes lit up at that. “Manehattan! Lights and Legends! Missing any of the juvie-joints yet?”

The colt rubbed his shoulder and blushed a little. “Well… Vortex’s, yeah.”

“Mm… not a bad place, been around for a while,” I said with a momentary purse of the lips, bobbing my head a few times as I mulled through memory. “Happen to swing by The Lazy Dog a few times?”

“Well yeah, but DJ H0UND’s retired, so kinda fell back on Vortex’s,” he answered with a boldened smile.

Mine faltered at that. Retired… wow… has it really been that long? But I forced it back on. “Bit of a shame, yeah, but still good taste.” I offered him a hoofbump- which he chuckled and returned- and stood tall once more. I addressed the class as a whole, “So yeah. They’re zebras. And I’m a pony.” And I began to point. “And you’re a griffin. And you’re a donkey. And you’re a buffalo. But you know what? Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re all Equestrians. We share the same bedtime stories, the same music, the same experiences, and the same values, those Six Cardinal Virtues of Friendship- honesty, kindness, generosity, laughter, loyalty, magic. All of it flows in our veins.” I formed an ice arm and held a single finger up. “Know thy enemy; it is not them.” I pointed it at the zebras. And then I let it sublimate. “Let’s set the record straight, folks. Equestria is at war with Zebrica- a nation not just of zebras but minotaurs, dragons, and even ponies, griffins, donkeys, mules, and buffalo as well!”

“What?” a student I couldn’t see cried out in disbelief. “That’s a lie!”

I snorted, looking in the general direction of the shout. “You want to argue with a doctor of equinpology? Feel free. Want to turn it into a shouting match? Feel free. Gotta warn you though, I grew up going to the same juvie-joints as your fellow classmate here.” I nodded toward the zebra from earlier. “I can shout as long and as loud as any drill sergeant in the Equestrian Armed Forces. Equestria is a multicultural country. So is Aldorna, and so is Zebrica.” And so I repeated the gesture. “Know thy enemy; it is not them. Equestria is at war with Zebrica- not with zebras. If any of you, your friends, or your family have a problem with that, I’ll gladly entertain an audience.” I looked at the group of zebras. “Go ahead and take a seat.” And back to the class as a whole. “And if there are any further zebra-related problems- and I will find out- well… don’t make any. But we’re running a little late as is.

“Welcome to Equestrian History Honors. My name is Frost Windchill. Pleased to meet you. Class is in session.”

* * *

Four months later.

“-Battle at the Isles of Gallopogos resulted in another zebra victory. As usual, no deaths were reported and all wounded are expected to make a full recovery. As the Legion continues its ‘stepping stone’ approach to the many islands dotting both the eastern and western seaboard, this is yet another example of Equestria’s poorly-equipped and poorly-trained military-”

“Frost, you really should stop listening to that. It’s just gonna get you depressed.”

Snapped out of my stupor, blinking rapidly, breathing rapidly. Looked across my office desk to Crystal, the baby dragoness clutching a set of scrolls. Sprouted an ice arm to flick the radio off, sublimating it shortly after. Drew a hoof down my face and let out a misty sigh.

“Ya see?” the blue-scaled toddler said, crossing her arms and frowning at me, though her eyes betrayed her concern.

“Ugh… you’re right,” I murmured, taking a look through the window behind me. Beyond laid the desolate badlands beyond Littlehorn… desolate, yet beautifully dotted by the light poking through the clouds. Like heaven shining down upon a cursed land. It brought a sense of calm to me, and I inhaled deeply before facing forward again. “My apologies. What was it you needed?”

“Just bringing you your mail,” Crystal replied, setting her batch down on my desk. I followed her gaze to its surface. It was cluttered with paperwork. “Still working on drafting midterms?”

“Yep,” I said, hissing out a sigh through my nostrils as I started sifting through the scrolls. Department meeting… luncheon… yadda yadda. “At least this time I’ve got a few under my belt already.”

“Alright… just… take care of yourself, okay?” Crystal said, rubbing her shoulder. “Try not to listen to too much to the war. I hate to use a quote this way, but ignorance is bliss.”

I blinked, and for a moment, I saw trash bags blotting out my entire vision and remembered that suffocating heat and stench.

“Ignorance can kill,” I retorted, sprouting another arm to dip my quill and sign the RSVP. “What you don’t know can hurt you.”

She frowned. “You say that as if the war’ll come to Littlehorn or Ponyville or Manehattan or something.”

“One more reason to keep paying attention to the headlines,” I said simply, passing the scroll to her.

“Not to the point of depression,” she huffed as she took it from me. “All in moderation, right? You Hokkaidans are all about balance.”

I couldn’t help but smile softly. “That’s The Way.” I let out a soft sigh. “You’re right. I’ll keep posted, just… not too closely. Alright?” Crystal nodded, returning my smile before heading back out.

Leaned back in my seat and frowned at the rough draft of the exam in front of me. Brushed it aside and opened up my desk, unfurling the scroll I’d saved there. A soft, misty sigh left my nostrils as I reread the paragraph near the end.

“I also strongly believe that while your articles and book on how the Age of Industry is affecting peoples worldwide are very informative, it would behoove you to eventually do some research at home. There are few Northerner equinpologists, and though Northerner culture is steeped in oral tradition, the written word may yet be necessary to chronicle our heritage and preserve it for the future.”

Strikespark Thea’s words had left an impression on me when I first laid eyes on them nearly three years ago. Now was the time to act on them.

I set the scroll back in its drawer, leaned back in my seat, and shut my eyes. Let the world melt away and started recollecting all the memories I had of the Northern Lights Festival, year after year…

* * *

Two months later.

Was seated at my desk at home in Ponyville, putting together my application for board member of the Manehattan Northerner Cultural Committee, the radio alarm not too far away hissing the latest news of the hour. At least it was just business-related news this time.

“Well, since neither Equestria nor Zebrica wish to do trade with one another, Aldorna has become a sort of middlegriffin- or middlebuck in your terms- in this international trading relationship. That’s why we’ve seen the need for a consolidated organization branching multiple industries, including medicine, electronics, aeronautics, commerce, investment, and many others. So one business partner talked to the next, and we’ve formed a new conglomerate of sorts.”

“For those who’ve just joined us, I’m speaking with Sigmund Rothchick, spokesgriffin of The Dartmouth Group. Dartmouth’s rapid growth has attracted many investors both in the griffin republic and at home in Equestria, though its development has not been without hitches…”

Heard the sparking and saw the flash of magic, and I’d been with her for more than long enough to know what that meant. I pulled away from my terminal as I swiveled around to greet Luna, offering a warm smile and opening my forelegs for a hug. The deep-blue alicorn used her magic to shed her royal regalia with a deep sigh, and we embraced tightly.

“We secured a cease-fire,” she said breathlessly as I brushed my neck against hers. “We secured a cease-fire.”

“That’s wonderful news!” I said, smiling as I brushed down her spine. I wasn’t a masseuse by any stretch of the imagination, but I could feel all the tense muscle in her back. “Does… does that mean the war’s over?”

Luna snorted, “No, just… delayed. Khotek is arrogant, but at least he has some sense of decency. He’s granted us one year to train and equip our military for modern warfare.” She breathed out another deep sigh as she pulled away, sitting down on the bed. “It’s… it’s just so strange, this war. They’re not even trying to kill one another. It’s almost like playing a game where the one who’s had enough concedes territory. No deaths, only injuries. I’d laugh, but… it’s just such a strange feeling.”

The storyteller leaned closer for a moment.

Remember. No more laughter.

I stood and moved to sit by her side, looking up at her. “But we should be grateful that it’s not turning into something like the conflict between the zebras and minotaurs, right?”

“Absolutely,” she said quickly and firmly, “but I can’t help but worry. That’s all it feels like- a game. What if everypony sees it that way? It would seem to them that my sister and I made up all this fuss about doom and gloom when the most that happens is somepony cracking a rib from a rubber bullet. Why? Khotek isn’t one to hold anything back like this. He shelled half of Crete into rubble! It’s like…” She suddenly looked up, staring wide-eyed at the wall ahead.

Been twenty years since I ever had to think like this, but the political chessmaster in me reached the same silent conclusion. “It’s like Khotek wants to politically discredit you.”

“Clever bastard…” Luna remarked in a murmur, putting a hoof to her chin. “And the cease-fire…”

“Would pull immediate attention away from the war and put you and Celestia back in the spotlight.” I finished.

“But not if that attention is redirected toward how stupid Parliament was for declaring war without a proper standing army,” Luna rebutted, frowning intensely. “Blueblood. The dolt.” She glanced up at me. “You’re fortunate you don’t have to worry much about politics, Frost. It’s a cold world.”

The storyteller smiled in guilty fashion.

Couldn’t help but think back to Prop Four. How little she knew back then...

* * *

One month later.

Once again, I glanced up from my desk as Luna teleported into our bedroom, smiling broadly. It slipped as I saw her rub at her eyelids with her forehooves and push inward to pinch at her brow. I could have sworn I saw dark circles under her eyes...

As she began to remove her regalia, she grumbled, “I. Hate. Parliament.”

I let out a misty sigh and slipped out of my chair, trotting over to brush at the side of her neck with my own, a gesture that she returned. “What happened this time?”

“They can’t seem to make up their minds,” she snorted derisively over my shoulder. “First they approve a ceasefire so we can build and train a proper modern army, and now they say they can’t wait any longer to try to seize coal and oil fields from Zebrica.” Another snort. “As if we were in any shape to do so in any case. We’d just get our asses handed to us by some very angry Legionaries.” She paused and coughed politely. “Ah… pardon my Prench.”

“Heh… come on, you’ve attended some of my lectures,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood. “Compared to you, I’m a sailor.”

That at least got a dry chuckle from her. She pulled away and sighed, looking away. “Fair enough. Still, it worries me. It’s like greed drives these ponies to no end. What makes matters worse is that the zebras also feel the same way, if the news headlines hold any water… they want more of our gems. And if they’ve already been seizing all of those mines with their string of conquests…”

I looked at her worriedly. “Luna?”

The deep-blue alicorn murmured, “I can only wonder what they’re using them for...”

I moved closer to her and caressed her cheek with my hoof, offering a soft smile. “We can worry about that another time. For now, though… you look like you could use some sleep.”

Luna huffed, “Some Princess of the Night I am… it’s hardly past nine-o’clock.”

We both chuckled softly and fell into a warm embrace before heading to bed. I wanted to say I had the distinct feeling that everything was going to be okay.

But I didn’t. Somewhere, somehow, I got the feeling things were about to get worse. Much worse.

* * *

One month later.

“-reports that hundreds of pegasi marched into the city’s recruitment office not to protest the war but to join it. Cloudsdale continues to boast the highest number of volunteers for the Equestrian Armed Forces. Here’s hoping that they provide a key aerial advantage when the war resumes next year. We wish all of our pegasi friends the best of luck in training.”

“Professor?”

Was jarred out of my stupor and turned to the door to my office. There was that one zebra colt again- the Manehattaner. I turned down the radio and offered a thin smile. “Ah, Kijele. Here for office hours?”

He smiled back broadly as he stepped in and nodded. “Yeah, and… honestly it seems like you could use the distraction, too.”

I grimaced. “Did Crystal send you?”

“No,” he answered just a little too quickly, just a little too firmly.

Opted not to press it. They both meant well. Leaned back in my seat and sprouted ice arms, tapping my fingers together as I did the same with my hooves. “So… how can I help you?”

“Well, uh… I… I’m still struggling a bit with the expedition into Blackwater Anomaly,” he offered up.

“Easy,” I replied in a heartbeat. “It was a gesture of international friendship between Equestria and Aldorna, namely to strengthen ties between the two nations after the Avalon Accord. The griffins wanted to find out more about the Anomaly, but they didn’t have experience dealing with that kind of natural magic. And so Princess Celestia offered a cadre from the Expeditionary Society to help.” I folded up my forehooves on my desk and watched as he fidgeted. His lies were obvious, and he knew it.

“Well, uh… that’s… pretty much it,” he murmured. “Thanks again for the help, professor.”

“No problem,” I said as he turned tail. “But really, if you need help, I’d gladly offer it. And send Crystal in on your way out, would you kindly?”

He winced, realizing the gig was up, before he slinked back out into the hallway. The baby dragoness walked in shortly after, scratching the back of her head sheepishly. “In my defense, I’m trying to help you.”

“And I realize that,” I said with a misty sigh, rubbing my brow. “But really, I’d rather you just up and talk to me like right now.”

“Still, it’s… I dunno, I’ve never seen or heard of anyone glued to the news like you are,” she said, concerned. “Is everything alright? You have family out in the territories?”

I shook my head and proceeded to use an alibi you might recognize.

“It’s complicated.”

* * *

Three months later.

Was just headed out of one of the staff lounges, popping my tupperware containers- now a rarity with the oil shortages- back into my saddlebags before heading to the lecture hall to get ready for the next class. Heard a bit of commotion coming from the grounds… suspected some trouble again with the Zebricans-not-zebras nonsense from before. Now even the administration had got all up-in-arms over it and installed magical defense arrays in the towers surrounding the campus’ perimeter. Just… why? So I galloped over, expecting to have to break up a fight but instead…

He smiled softly, a twinkle in his eye.

Heh… Luna. Surprise visit. She was absolutely swarmed by foals, all screaming excitedly to get to meet their princess. She was the center of attention, and I couldn’t help but chuckle as I watched her from a distance. I couldn’t hear what was going on, and I didn’t want to risk getting closer lest a more discerning eye put two and two together.

The old buck let out a deep, soft sigh.

All that dancing in the nightclubs and being around so many different people during the Northern Lights Festival and our less-than-legal stay in Zebrica really helped her out. Nightmare Night too, I suppose. She was no longer bashful or awkward in crowds, and she took the attention in stride. She reminded me a bit of Celestia, the way she seemed to waver between reserved royalty and playful prankster. I guess a bit of Pinkie Pie rubbed off on her. But she was patient, warm...

Another sigh.

She was happy. Very happy. A school of her own, filled with thousands of students. Each one looked up to her, and…

He brought a hoof to his mouth.

I’m sorry. Just… yeah. Just… just a good moment I want to remember.

* * *

Because nine months later.

My eyes flashed open as the radio alarm clock went off.

“-resumed hostilities centered on the island of Galicanal. Casualties number in the hundreds-”

It was only after I reflexively shut the alarm off and sat on the edge of the bed that I realized two things.

One, the use of the word “casualties.” That word had never been used before in any news coverage of the war so far.

Two, I had gone to bed with Luna at my side. She was nowhere to be found.

“Oh no…” I uttered before switching the radio back on.

“-that zebras have indeed been using lethal weaponry across all major territories last under siege before the ceasefire, their offensives especially concentrated in areas with known gem deposits. Equestrian Armed Forces have begun a rapid retreat across all major holdings in both the south Almarinian and south Berrillion seaboard…”

* * *

Early morning. The next day.

Could feel my eyelids sagging as I struggled to stay awake. The strain from staring at the display didn’t help. Was working on the section for the Horwegians for my paper on Northerner culture. Finally decided to follow up on Strikespark Thea’s words. But now, as I fought to stay awake, I struggled to describe the significance of their war chant. Such a simple thing. One thing led to another, and soon I couldn’t help but keep thinking about this war. A war that just escalated. Couldn’t shake it. Just couldn’t. I ended up deleting more than I wrote the last few hours.

I’d been up late before- many times. Even if I wasn’t young anymore, I was a Manehattaner through and through. But as I saw the first rays of Celestia’s sun start to poke through the blinds, I glanced at the clock readout at the bottom of the screen. Six A.M.

I let out a deep, misty sigh, fogging up the screen. Lowered my gaze out of desperation. Big mistake. As if spurred by momentum, my eyelids followed suit, and I felt content to lean forward and-

Jolted awake again as my body realized what was going on, and I righted myself before gravity finished the job, my heart racing. Just let out another deep sigh. Hang in there, I told myself. Just hang in there. She won’t be long.

Then came the flash and sparkle behind me, and I let out another sigh- this time of relief. I turned, and there she was- weary, sagging… but there she was.

“Hey…” I greeted quietly, slipping out of my seat and practically falling into her as she caught me, eyes wide with surprise.

“Frost, you… you stayed up all this time?” she whispered.

“Wanted to be here for you when you got back…” I murmured, snaking my forelegs around her to hug her tightly as I could. Her expression melted into a soft smile as she kissed me softly on the lips. After she pulled away, though, it quickly slipped. “... how bad is it?”

“It’s… it’s bad,” Luna replied quietly. “But… we can talk about it another time.” She forced a soft smile once more and helped me into bed, using her magic to turn off the display as she went. “And Frost… I appreciate you greeting me like this, but please don’t wait for me. Don’t do that to yourself.” She inhaled softly as we slid under the covers. Eyes downcast.“... this war has become real, Frost. I… I won’t be around as often. Please understand.”

“I do,” I whispered back to her, reaching to cup her cheek. “But if you ever have need of me… I’ll be here for you, Nightingale. Never forget that.”

She smiled. A genuine one. Sent my heart a flutter. I was glad that was the last thing I saw before fatigue overwhelmed me.

* * *

Two years later.

I started seeing her less and less. I tried to stay up for her. I really did. A few months passed that way. Just me, staying up into the morning just to see her, welcome her, comfort her. She needed it. Equestria had spent an entire year training its fledgling army. And Khotek threw it all in our faces with the first truly grisly defeats. Don’t know why he did it. Didn’t make any sense. He could’ve kept humiliating Luna and Celestia, but… I had a theory- though I never did find out- that he was pressured into it by his own people. They wanted those gems, whatever they were using them for.

After all, it isn’t always the people being at the whim of their government. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. You’d all do well to remember that, folks.

The storyteller let out a soft sigh.

One day, Luna didn’t return come morning. Passed out around noontime. Next time I woke up, I was in bed. She’d tucked me in. Then came another. And another. She’d been busy enough to the point of falling asleep at the castle. Couldn’t blame her, what she had to go through. Eventually, I yielded to her advice. I couldn’t afford it when I had lectures to give.

Another sigh.

Saturday. Bright and early. Was just washing up the dishes from breakfast when I heard a knock at the door. Pinkie Pie. Just checking up on me again.

“Hey,” I greeted with a soft smile. I didn’t try to hide the bags under my eyes. Nor she hers.

“Hey,” she greeted in turn. “So, uh… Nightingale’s…”

“Busy again, yes,” I said with a slow nod and inhaled deeply. “Any word on Rainbow Dash? Heard the news.”

“She’ll be okay,” Pinkie said with a faint but hopeful smile. “She’ll have a scar running past her eye, but her eyesight’s still going to be super-duper.”

Smiled softly in turn. “That’s good to hear.” It faded quickly. “But she’ll head right back to the Skyguard afterward… won’t she?”

Pinkie nodded, and for once I noticed a slight… droopiness to her mane. “Yeah. But who can stop her? Just have to keep spirits up and hope for the best.” She kicked at the floor idly. “Me and Fluttershy went to one of the hospitals in Wickermane’s Bay. It’s… how do you keep those ponies happy? How can I keep them laughing? All they have to look in the mirror, and…” She let out a deep breath. “Anyway, Scootaloo’s going to be kicking off the X-Games in Ponyville tomorrow. Did you wanna come see?”

Now it was my turn to offer her the comforting smile, rubbing her shoulder. “Absolutely. I’ll be there.”

And she returned it. “Thanks, Frost. See you then.” She pat me on the shoulder. “And remember- sunshine and rainbows.”

* * *

A few weeks later.

“The Griffin Republic of Aldorna maintains a stance of neutrality. We neither sanction nor support any military activity in the name of either the Holy Zebrican Empire or the Principality of Equestria.”

“Regardless, there have undoubtedly been numerous reports of griffin mercenaries working on both sides, Talon Company and Obsidian the most notable. What do you intend to do with them?”

“Unfortunately, the recent Briggs v. Avalon court ruling dictates that these private military corporations exist outside the jurisdiction of executive control. Unless they take illegal action against Aldorna or Aldornan citizens, they’re considered legal.”

“That seems to be a very fishy ruling.”

“It’s a very controversial one, yes.”

Crystal was right. All this was getting me depressed. Seeing so little of Luna… guess that was the last straw. Sat back in my office chair and extended an ice arm to flick the radio off as I rubbed my eyelids with my hooves. Let out a deep, long, misty sigh and wondered what the hell I was doing anymore.

Then a soft buzz filled the air. Looked down and realized it was my phone.

With a call from home.

“Oh boy…” I murmured. I had a hunch- a correct one- what this call was going to be about.

* * *

Four months later.

Finally, on my birthday, we had the chance to lay awake in bed together. Finally. Just laid there, lost in each other’s eyes. Her eyes… eyes full of everything.

I inhaled deeply, breaking the silence. “Nightingale… I know you’re a mare who likes tradition. I can understand that. Five years of courting before marriage, five years of marriage before…”

“Children,” she finished in a whisper.

There were some whispers in the audience, quickly hushed. His eyes seemed to command silence for now.

“Your parents put you up for this, didn’t they?” she asked with a thin smile.

“... yeah.” I admitted.

“Your mother’s so fixated on green fur…” Luna chuckled softly. At least she tried to brighten the mood first. After that, she was quiet for a while. But we still met eyes. Saw everything in them. Right now, uncertainty.

“Are you worried?” I whispered.

She nodded slowly. So her eyes kept level. “I love you, Frost. And look, that was… thousands of years ago, what Tia told you. It’s a dreadful thing… outliving your own children. I know it’s your birthday, but…” She let out a soft sigh. Never lowered her gaze. Eyes… so, so sad.

I squeezed her tighter in our embrace. “It’s okay. I understand completely.”

“And I’ve… I’ve thought of it myself, but now isn’t a good time.” A pause. “I don’t want our foal to grow up like this. Already a generation is growing up to antagonize Zebrica. Some of them are growing up learning to hate zebras. If we had a child… I wouldn’t one to grow up in that kind of world. I love you. Truly. But… maybe we can talk about this another time.”

“It’s okay,” I repeated a little more firmly. “I understand.”

Luna smiled softly, briefly. I returned it.

“Still…” she murmured tilting forward to nose at me, “it is your birthday. I’ll make it a special one.”

I blinked. “Ah… beg your pardon?”

Luna grinned. “I am the Princess of the Night… and dreams do fall under my domain.” Her horn cast us in a soft-blue pallor, and she lowered it toward mine. My eyelids grew heavy, but I could hear her last words as I began to slip away. “Sleep well, Frost… you’ll be having a very satisfying dream tonight.”

The storyteller cracked a thin smile.

I’m still a virgin. Technically.

One of the ponies in the audience asked if the notion wasn’t, well… blasphemous.

Is it? In a sense, maybe it is. But those few nights, those few dreams, she was Nightingale- my wife- to me. Not Princess Luna.

He inhaled deeply.

I still don’t take blasphemy lightly. But the reason I take such offense from it might be different from what you think.

In due time, folks.

* * *

His smile died quickly.

Two months later.

“-report that Northerners are becoming increasingly involved in the war effort. Stalliongrad especially has gone through rapid changes in its business sector. With me is Miss Grisgold Fairwind, who if I’m not mistaken, is Horwegian.”

“You’d be right, sir. Pleasure to join you.”

“Miss Fairwind is the owner of the BelAZ-Dzershinzky tractor factory. Or, at least that was what it used to be. I understand you’ve gone through a dramatic revision?”

“Correct. Like many of Stalliongrad’s automotive industries, we now produce armored vehicles. Tanks, jeeps, humvees, you name it. A lot of the other manufacturing plants have followed suit.”

“And what was behind this decision? Northerners in many other cities across Equestria have enlisted en masse along with pegasi or similarly started to support the war effort.”

“I feel it is… because we owe our lives to Equestria. So many of us died during the Great Exodus, yes, but we were saved. Millions of you Equestrians came to our aid. Stalliongrad and Burrlin, then Manehattan. We owe it to you. So in Equestria’s time of need, I feel it’s time to repay the debt.”

“Princess Celestia has stated multiple times that the Northerners owe no such service to Equestria and that they were simply doing what you would have done should the horseshoe have been on the other hoof.”

“Heh… maybe there’s a bit of griffin in me, then. I know I’m not the only one to see it that way. That’s just how it is for us.”

“Now for some more lighthearted news. A new restaurant has opened in Tail Aviv and has been surging in popularity not only locally but abroad. Golden Spoon has more…”

Tuned out the report after and just sat back in my seat. Repay the debt…

Debt. Powerful word. Powerful connotations, especially since I- like so many other Northerners- endured years of poverty after the Great Exodus. For me, especially, it was a dangerous word. When I owned the Mumei, I couldn’t afford to hold debts- I had to make others indebted to me. And now, after hearing that... couldn’t stop thinking about that, repaying the debt.

Stood up from my desk and headed to the window, cracking open the shutters. Still had a good view into the Ponyville town square and the train station with it. And there was Fluttershy. Butter-yellow mare with a long pink mane that you could’ve easily tripped over if you weren’t careful. Kindest mare I ever knew. Fitting, given the Element she bore. Poor girl was trying to put on a brave face as she held up picket signs in protest of the war along with several of her animals. Could barely hear them chattering and chirping, quacking and calling with her. Fluttershy? Could see her legs shaking from here. Her animals were certainly louder than she was.

But she got my attention. Thought back on my conversations with Pinkie Pie and the times I passed by the town’s hospital. Broken bodies, broken souls. With mangled limbs and blinded eyes, they knew how to treat them- or at least tried. The mind… still didn’t know back then. Nobody knew back then. Remember looking one of them- pegasus named Thunderlane- in the eye. Perfectly fine. Made a complete recovery. No bits of shrapnel left in his chest. He saw nothing. Just a blank stare off into the distance. Horrible, haunted look on those eyes. His family was right alongside Fluttershy, trying to convince the bucks and mares headed to enlist in Canterlot otherwise. You don’t understand what happens out there, they try to tell them. And nobody truly did understand except the soldiers themselves. And it would stay that way for years to come.

So why did it stick with me? Repay the debt…

* * *

Three years later.

Luna… didn’t see her much. Most of what I saw of her was in newspaper photos and on the TV. Most of what I heard of her was over the airwaves.

The storyteller sighed deeply.

It was hard… you know? Only on rare occasions did I get to see the mare I loved outside of the brief few seconds she took out of her busy day to teleport me to Littlehorn. My birthday, the Northern Lights Festival, Hearth’s Warming, Nightmare Night… those days I cherished. Fall and December especially were my favorite times of the year. And it showed. Outside of prepping and giving lectures and exams… pretty much stayed at home. Just wanted to be there in case she’d show up out of the blue. Just kept listening to my favorite tracks, kept myself busy with my work on Northerner cultures… wrote letters to her.

He cracked a thin smile.

I had to make a very special friend in order to send those letters to her. Well, technically to Celestia. But that’s not too important. I just didn’t want to miss her. And Pinkie… bless that mare, she stopped by often just to keep me company. Her other friends took priority most of the time. Couldn’t blame her for that, but… the one time she brought the party to my home… bless that mare.

He chuckled softly, shortly, huskily. The years seemed to weigh down on the buck.

Maybe it was a good thing Luna didn’t show up that night. If the Princess of the Night suddenly teleported into your house with others around…

Another soft, short, husky chuckle. His smile faded quickly.

I wanted to be there for her. Maybe it was partly for my own sake- try to blame me, just try- but it was mostly for her. I felt she needed me closer than that, but… having some seemingly random pony be in there with her during Parliamentary meetings or press conferences or whatever… that would raise rumors and questions. She wouldn’t want that, especially not right now.

So I found myself in Canterlot one day, stepping out of the social studies department building of Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. With an old friend.

“Thank you for coming, Frost,” Egan said with a bright smile. Almost eighty years old. Still kicking, still delivering those lectures I loved. “Glad I had another decent soul to back me up. I didn’t think there were so many extremists in the field.” His next words were muttered under his breath. “Taking zebra studies out of the curriculum… what a load of…”

“Well I’d rather not have us return to the days of Broca,” I said to the old mule. “That does equinpology as a whole a disservice. Thank you for informing me about this meeting.”

“Thank you for being so convincing,” he chuckled. “Now I can see why your students love you at Littlehorn.”

“You’re too kind, Egan,” I chuckled in turn. “Anyway, I’d best be off. Gotta prep for my own equinpology summer course.”

“Well it was good to see you again,” he said as we shook hooves. “Have a good one, alright?”

I saw him off with a wave of an icy hand. “You too. Take care.”

And so I made my way off of campus grounds, bound for the train station. Canterlot… the city really changed. There were posters up everywhere- not like the ones you see nowadays littering the Wasteland cities. They were even more cartoonish and cheesy- and far more straightforward. Join the Equestrian Armed Forces today. Call your local recruitment office today. Bland, overly patriotic stuff like that. Didn’t pay much attention to them.

Except to one.

It was one of the few proper posters up. Featured a Day Guard and Night Guard back to back with one another, halberds brandished and faces stern with a sunny and starry background separating them respectively. It proclaimed ‘For Goddesses and Country.’

I stopped there and stared, probably irritating a noble or two that had to walk around me. Don’t know why I did. Not for sure. Was focused wholly on that poster. Got the gears in my head turning, and I furrowed my brow in thought.

Repay the debt.

I made up my mind. I was heading to the Royal Guard Corps’ recruitment office. Right there. Right then.

The old buck inhaled deeply.

I know what you’re all thinking. This is that moment. Right? Well, you’re forgetting a few things.

It was located next to the police office. Clean building, very spartan. Bare necessities. Front desk, waiting area, hallway leading to the offices in the back, probably with rooms for checkups. If it weren’t for the Day and Night Guards at the front desk and the propaganda posters lining the walls, you could have easily mistaken it for the dentist’s. There was a good-sized queue already up, mostly younger bucks. Some of them shot questioning glances at me. I tried to pay them no mind. Instead I looked at the posters displaying all four branches of the Royal Guard Corps- Day, Night, Solar, and…

… odd. Nothing for the Lunar Guard.

“Next.”

I stood and strode to the front desk. The two guards there were seated with terminals at the ready. They were both unicorns, both a murky shade of brownish-gray due to their armor’s enchantments. The Day Guard, golden armor with the broomstick helm. The Night Guard, dark blue with more of a cloudy paintbrush look for the helm. Both bore the signet of the lower guard on their chests. And I could feel both judging me with their eyes despite the Day Guard already working with somepony.

“Sir, are you sure you’re in the right place?” the Night Guard asked. “This is the recruitment office for the Royal Guard Corps.”

“I’m sure,” I said firmly.

The dusk-furred unicorn grimaced briefly before glancing at his companion, who simply answered with a glance to his partner’s screen. “Full name?”

“Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill.”

The Night Guard’s magic flared to life and danced along the keyboard. He was focused more on the screen than me by now. “And which branch do you intend to enlist in?”

I answered without hesitation, “The Lunar Guard.”

He stopped typing. And so did his partner. Somepony flipped through the last page of a brochure for a split second, but afterward, silence fell on the entire office. I felt all eyes on me.

“Mister Windchill, you meant the Night Guard, correct?” he inquired.

“No,” I said plainly. “The Lunar Guard.”

The Night Guard turned to his partner and, in the dead silence of the entire room, audibly whispered, “Do we even have the paperwork or the access for that?”

“Just a crazy old buck,” he murmured back. “Just tell it to him straight.”

“I’m serious,” I said adding a slight edge to my tone. “I wish to enlist in the Lunar Guard.”

The Day Guard glanced at his partner. “I suppose this means we’ll have to contact Captain Shining Armor about this?”

And then she was there. An earth pony, or… vaguely an earth pony. Ash-gray fur. Tufted ears. Sleek, spiky armor in deep hues of blue with the eye-like gem in the chestplate. And eyes. Hungry eyes. No noise. No pretense. The space behind the two guards was completely empty before, and there were more than enough eyes to watch. One moment, nothing. The next, she was there.

“That won’t be necessary,” she said in a firm tone.

As she spoke, everyone- myself included- finally reacted to her sudden appearance. There were some curses, some audible jumping. Both guards spun in their seats with their forelegs raised as if anticipating attack but freezing partway after realizing who it was. Me? I flinched, and my heart did pick up, but years of Pinkie Pie and Luna tempered my surprise. Shame neither of the guards noticed.

“Captain Obsidian,” the Night Guard uttered quickly, rising with his partner to salute.

“At ease,” she spoke, eyes still fixed on me. “I’ll handle this matter personally. Continue.”

“Ma’am,” they sounded in unison before taking their seats.

As the room (mostly) began to settle, Obsidian simply nodded toward the hallway leading to the offices in a silent order to follow, and I obliged. I noted that she made no discernible sound as she moved. Her armor didn’t jingle, her horseshoes didn’t clink against the flooring. She was silent. Dead silent. And soon the subtle typing and ambient chatter filled it in. I didn’t know what to feel about the whole situation. There was no doubt she knew me, but at the same time… if she knew I would be here…

She led me into the very last office- an unmarked one. The inside was as objective as could be expected given the waiting area. Desk, terminal, chairs, file cabinets, office supplies. Nothing else. Upon entering the room with her, she… she moved again- fast, faster than the eye could track- behind the desk and flipped some kind of switch underneath. One moment, she was just in front of me. The next, there.

Obsidian looked up at me. “Close and lock the door,” she ordered.

I sprouted an ice arm to shut us in and twist the lock into place. As I looked back, she had moved the chair behind the desk to my side to sit with me and deftly spun it around before setting it down so that she sat down leaning forward against the backrest. She wordlessly gestured to the other seat.

As I sat, she started unlatching her helmet and neckplates. “Recorder’s off, room’s locked… let’s get started,” she spoke. “So you want to become a Lunar Guard.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered confidently as I could.

“Don’t call me that,” she said as she worked.

“How should I refer to you?” I inquired. “Captain Obsidian? Lady Protector Obsidian?”

She cracked a smile- a toothy smile- and let out a soft huff. “Just Obsidian,” she replied, removing her helm and neckplates- which I noted were part of a single piece- and set it down on the desk. Her mane, cut short, was a jet black with a subtle sheen. Explained the name. “That’s Dawn’s thing. He’s the only one who does that. Likewise, I hope you don’t expect me to call you Doctor Windchill. Or, goddesses forbid, Prince Windchill.”

“Oh Lorn no,” I murmured, grimacing.

“Glad we’re on the same page, then,” she snorted, grunting as she removed the eye-shaped gem lodged in her breastplate and set it on the desk with her helm. “In any case, I’m not your superior.”

“Not yet.”

She stared at me for a while with those eyes. Eyes… hungry. The ash-gray mare propped herself up a little higher against the backrest of her chair. “So you want to become a Lunar Guard.” She tilted her head slightly downward but kept her eyes fixed on me. “Is that your way of helping Luna?”

“Yes,” I answered without hesitation.

She was silent for a few seconds. Then: “Why do you believe that becoming a Lunar Guard would help her more than right now?”

I inhaled deeply and glanced away. Now I was the one silent for a few seconds. Eyes back on her. I didn’t fear them this time. “I can only help her so much when I see her so little. I do my best to comfort her. I’ve sent letters- many letters, but…” I fell silent. Obsidian said nothing and merely waited for me to continue. “I want to be there for her. I want to be at her side. She needs a physical reminder that no matter what, I’m always there for her. And I can’t do that as is.”

She kept a level head and a level gaze at me. “Is it purely for her sake?”

I inhaled again. “No.”

“You didn’t lie to me,” she said in remark, inhaling as well as she leaned back to fold her forelegs atop the backrest as she leaned forward once more. “Good.” She inhaled again. “Frost, can you say in good faith that you fully understand what it means to become a Lunar Guard?”

Inhaled again. “No.”

“You didn’t lie to yourself. Also good.” Obsidian glanced downward for a few seconds. Then eyes back on me. “There’s a reason nopony enlists to become a Lunar Guard, Frost. Here are the requirements. One, with few exceptions, you need to serve at least one tour of military duty in a combat role and be honorably discharged. That’s a requirement shared by all branches of the Royal Guard Corps. You are forty-five years old, Frost. Do you know how many forty-five-year-olds are on the battlefield right now? Zero. The oldest is thirty-six years old.”

“And how old are you?” I questioned.

She smirked. “One-thousand-seventy-eight. But you and I both know I cheated.”

“Still, eighty-seven,” I said, folding my forelegs across my chest.

“... we’ll get to that,” she said simply. “Two, guard training. But after a tour of duty, that’s foals’ play. Three, our training. Becoming a Lunar Guard is very demanding, Frost. We will push your body and spirit to its breaking point. We’ll strengthen you up. And then we’ll do it again. Guard training teaches you to be steadfast against all manner of adversity, whether it be against a threat to Equestria or against interrogation. Our training is meant to prepare you to go beyond all that. You will break a lot of things in the process- and you will break down. Because our training is meant for the fourth requirement.”

I continued to meet her eyes. “If your words were meant to intimidate me-”

“They aren’t,” she snorted. “Not yet.”

“So what’s the fourth requirement?” I asked.

Obsidian inhaled deeply enough to visibly swell her chest. “Frost, have you noticed something about the other members of the Royal Guard Corps? In… regards to their physical appearance?”

“That… their armor is enchanted to make them appear identical you mean?” I asked in turn.

“Yes,” the ash-gray pony answered with a nod, “an enchantment that requires a spell matrix running through the hidden gem chestpiece.”

“And?”

Obsidian stared at me for a few seconds longer, then glanced to the side in a very deliberate manner. Then eyes back on me. I followed her gaze to… her…

Gem.

I looked back at her. “Oh…”

“Oh,” she parroted, inhaling and glancing downward. Several seconds passed. She didn’t make eye contact as she spoke again. “This isn’t an illusion, Frost. Now, this?” She snatched up the gem and pushed it back into her chestplate with a metallic snap. “In moon’s light.” Her fur discolored and turned into the same lustrous black as her mane, her overall appearance reminiscent of a black cat. The tufts of fur on her ears disappeared, and her eyes dulled but retained the same amber shade. The iris of her gem turned into a soft purple. It wasn’t an instantaneous change either. It took a few seconds. It was no simple illusion. “This isn’t either. It’s a morphing charm- a very powerful one that takes a good chunk of a ten-pound gem to generate. Look into my eyes. Tell me I’m lying. I dare you.”

Resolute. Fixed. Honest.

“No.”

“I am not an earth pony. Not anymore at least.” Obsidian touched the gem again. “In moon’s shadow.” Eyes hungry. Fur ashen. Back again. She inhaled deeply. “I believe Luna told you about… what she did a thousand years ago? Possibly mentioned us?”

For a moment, her irises narrowed into slits. “Discord wasn’t the only expert in amniomorphic spells, Frost.

“First was myself. Then came my loyal guards. Equine beings, turned to monsters. Aldorna’s and Zebrica’s finest stood no chance.”

“... yes,” I answered. “Yes she did.”

Obsidian sighed softly, “The amniomorphic spell. A stabilized one. Luna is the only one who can do it. The equine body, transfused with the blood of a dragon which is then magically activated. And… having nearly lost my leg once and having it surgically operated on before the discovery of effective anesthesia or analgesics or equivalent spells, I can safely say that it is the most painful thing anypony, anyone can ever go through.” She stood and swung the chair around to sit in it normally. “We’re dracoponies, Frost. And you know what? This isn’t natural. This isn’t meant to be. There are consequences. And one of them? We’re all sterile.”

I gulped. And she noticed.

“Sterile,” she repeated, and that feeling in the pit of my gut grew only stronger. “Not just with intercourse with normal ponies. Between one another as well. Even mules, even zonies have a chance to produce a foal. Not us.” She inhaled. “I heard that you and Luna briefly discussed children. If the military service, if the guard training, if our training didn’t convince you otherwise, I hope that does.” She leaned forward, shifting on her haunches to get closer. “And I know you. Look into my eyes. They’re different, yeah. But look into my eyes. Does it look like I’m lying?”

Sad… so very sad.

“No,” I whispered.

“That,” Obsidian said as she pulled away, “is the biggest reason. In order for you to become a Lunar Guard, you have to become a dracopony. No exceptions. You simply can’t do what we require otherwise. And that- among the many other consequences of the transformation- is why we haven’t had a single recruit ever since the Lunar Guard was reinstated.”

“But… can’t she turn you back?” I asked.

Obsidian stared at me. And slowly flattened her lips. “Frost, when you become a dracopony, things get… ‘added.’ In the process. Shifted around, too. It’s hard enough to ‘add’ with an amniomorphic spell. Taking away is even harder. Even that is beyond Luna’s ability.”

“Do you know for sure?”

She sat back in her chair. Silent. For several long seconds. “You saw us in the gardens, didn’t you? You also saw Daze. She looked normal right? For a unicorn dracopony like herself at least.” A pause. “She changed her mind. She didn’t want to serve as a Lunar Guard any longer. She didn’t want to be a dracopony any longer. Luna granted her requests.” She took a deep breath. “She did her best. She really tried. But Frost, there’s a reason why she’s still a Lunar Guard. And there’s a reason why she hides behind her illusions now.” She sighed softly, glancing away. “And Faraal can see right through them. Small wonder Daze avoids her.”

Her eyes fell back on me. “So there’s no turning back, Frost. Believe me- please- when I say this isn’t the answer you’re looking for. If for… some reason you not only agree to all of this but survive to become a Lunar Guard… well let’s spell it out, shall we? One, you’re sterile. No children. That’s obvious. Two, you’d have to drop everything you have. Teaching at Littlehorn? That spot on the Manehattan Northerner Cultural Committee? Your research?” The ash-gray mare made a slashing motion with her hoof. “Gone. Three, you risk death. You risk it during military service, you risk it during our training process, you risk it in order to become one of us, and you continue to risk it serving Equestria as a Lunar Guard. And if you die… especially by Luna’s horn during the amniomorphic spell… that would be far, far from helping Luna and bringing you both back together as you desire. Do I make myself clear, Frost? I’m not trying to intimidate you- I’m taking the time out of a break in my very busy schedule to warn and advise you that this is not the choice you want to make.”

I nodded slowly. Felt as if my head was moving on squeaky hinges. Just felt… drained. Mouth, edges of my eyes were dry. Felt heavy, felt… weak… felt… drained.

Obsidian let out a soft sigh. “Look, I know it’s a lot to take in. I just want to make sure you make an informed decision regarding this. It’s a decision not to be taken lightly.”

I nodded slowly again, letting out a soft breath. “Alright. Alright.” Now I sucked one in. “I won’t enlist.” The words weren’t liberating. Nor were they painful to say.

The ash-gray earth dracopony returned my nod and reached out to pat my shoulder. Those horseshoes were cool- comfortably cool. “Don’t have much time before I have to return to my duties, but are there any lingering questions?”

I met eyes with her. “So how can I help her like this?”

Obsidian let out a soft breath through her nostrils. “Don’t worry about that, Frost. You just… existing is enough. That she knows that you love her enough to stay awake into mid-morning up until it started interfering with your ability to teach, that’s enough to keep her going. Now add in the letters you’ve been sending her and the days you do get to spend time together… trust me, Frost. You’re golden. Alright? You might not feel the same way, but trust me on this one. Now was there anything else?”

I glanced away, letting out a soft, misty sigh before turning my eyes back on her. “Nothing pressing. Though, eventually, I do want to know- why did you and the others decide to side with her so long ago?”

She let out a soft huff. “That’s a difficult question with a difficult answer, Frost. Maybe when this all sorts out- and I pray it’s soon- we can get a chance. You’re part of the royal family now, after all.”

“Does that mean I have one of you stalking me at any given moment?” I snorted.

“You haven’t been in any danger yet,” Obsidian replied, slipping her helm back on, clasping up the plates, and standing up. She… flickered… behind the desk again to set the chair back in its proper place. “And besides, you’d know. Unicorns and anyone else especially sensitive to magic can feel when we’re nearby. In any case, it’s back to work for me.” She headed for the door, and I stood with her. “Keep doing what you’re doing, Frost. Farewell.”

She flickered away as soon as she started opening the door, giving it the appearance that it had opened by itself.

* * *

One year, five months later.

Was seated at home at my desk. Terminal was off. Just me, my trusty quill, a half-full inkwell, and a fresh parchment scroll. Dipped the quill and began to write.

Dear Nightingale,

I hope the night finds you well, love. I heard the news regarding General Long Street’s success in routing the Zebrican naval fleet before it reached shelling distance of the west coast, and there’s promise that he may yet push the Legion further back. You made a fine choice in appointing him to handle the western front. From what I know of him, the closely-spaced atolls there suit his style. He knows how to penetrate them. I know he’ll take back our territories.

But to the other matter at hoof, I hope you’re free on November 16th- six days from now, that is. I have made a certain arrangement in Tail Aviv at a certain restaurant that’s been catching a certain somepony’s eye.

I hope to see you again soon. I aim to make the night special for us.

Softest starlight,
Frost

* * *

Six days later.

I looked at myself in the mirror at home. My fur was clean, my mane was done up nicely, and my balisong pouches were set aside for once. This was our night after all.

There was a flash of light from my bedroom and the sparkle of magic, and I curled my lips into a broad grin as I stepped out to greet her.

Still wearing her royal attire as she turned to me, Luna declared with a slight grin of her own, “You didn’t…”

“I did,” I declared in turn.

Her grin broadened. “You managed to get a reservation for us at Taste of the World?”

“Helps to have connections,” I chuckled huskily as I approached her- never mind how I had those connections in the first place of course. We embraced, and I let out a deep sigh. “Happy anniversary, Lulu.”

Watching her blush furiously was enough to make my night. “Happy anniversary,” she said in turn. She pulled away and magically whisked her regalia before glowing a brilliant white and taking the form of the silvery-maned unicorn I first knew her by. “So! To Tail Aviv, my dear?”

“You have a good idea where to teleport us without being noticed?” I inquired.

“But of course,” she chuckled. “Teleporation isn’t commonplace. You don’t think I can’t hide my own tracks in our escapades? For shame, Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill. For shame.” She caught me rolling my eyes and giggled. “Sorry if I was channeling your mother too much, love.”

“As long as you don’t keep hoping for green,” I joked in turn.

Luna let out a soft, short laugh. “Now… shall we?”

“We shall,” I answered, and the world whited out. There was a brief moment of weightlessness and detachment before the world rushed back with cracked pavement underneath my feet and… facing a brick wall. I looked around to find us in an alley between two dilapidated brick buildings. The smell of brine filled my nose as I sniffed deeply and looked toward the ends to find a wide canal separating this row of houses from the other. “Are we in the Flooded District?”

“The edge of it, yes,” Luna replied. “It’ll be around a ten-minute walk to get there. Not too long.”

The storyteller leaned back slightly and let out a slow, misty breath.

Tail Aviv. City of Water and Wonders. A city millennia old, so rich with history. And it showed. Originally the Equestrian stronghold against zebra invasion by sea during the Age of Empires, it was built as a fortress, but as times changed, so did the city. EZTA fostered alliances with the zebras, and trade soon opened up with the griffins following the Almarinian War along with all of the greater powers’ many territories following the United Nations Accord. What had once been a fortress turned into a port of trade. Tail Aviv sat very close to Littlehorn near the border of the Zebrican Wilds, and it also served as the gateway between the Berrillion Sea to the east and the Almarinian Sea to the west. The city expanded far beyond its original walls, once meant to defend from enemy cannons. Now an intricate network of canals and waterways linked one district of the city to the other, rolling from the Almarinian across the narrow stretch of land into the Berrillion. Ponymade islands connected by bridges spread outward from the battlements. Venison in Bitaly was the only other city like that, but it didn’t have that sense of nature to it, sitting in the middle of a lake- or the grandeur. The tides swelled and fell, and so too did Tail Aviv, rippling with the water that lent to its title. As Luna and I walked, we occasionally glimpsed the relics of the old days.

The towering walls still dominated the skyline where it was visible, governing and guarding passage into the Shielded District, where all the old military fortifications, religious institutions, and the administrative sector laid. Sprawling forth from it along the nearby coastline was the Terraced District- and indeed it did move toward the beach on visible tiers as ponies once fearful of their zebra competitors and enemies began to spread out from the walls, building suburban neighborhoods and businesses with them- and friendships with their new trading partners. Finally, there came the Flooded District- the many interconnected islands spreading from sea to shining sea and forming the grand canal that linked them- built to facilitate trade from friendly nation to friendly nation.

But now war returned- and with it, the threat of invasion by sea- and air. The canal spanning the two seas was closed. New battlements rose over the Flooded District. Construction on the Terraced District halted on its march to the sea. The fortifications of the Shielded District were redrawn and renovated. Massive, long-ranged cannons for defense against attack by air and sea took the place of the relics of old wars.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. History has a funny way of repeating itself. Tail Aviv, City of Water and Wonders, once again became Equestria’s southern stronghold. The only safe approach to it now was via Shattered Hoof Ridge.

Tail Aviv took steps too far, too many. And now it was aching inside. The Terraced and Flooded Districts were born from trade and commerce. Without them, their growth was stunted, and they atrophied. Tail Aviv fell only when spellfire rained from the sky, but even so, it could be argued that it was the Equestrian city hit hardest by the war after Stalliongrad. Tail Aviv grew too many mouths to feed and too reliant on trade to feed them, even with business from the Equestrian Heartland. There didn’t have to be a naval blockade to starve the city. Its own walls did the job just fine.

I was very glad that Luna took us to the edge of the Flooded District rather than its heart. Even if condemned houses and apartments, starving ponies, and beggars were nothing new to me, I’d rather not have had her see those during our anniversary. What little we saw of it were the few homes and scant few businesses and corner drug stores keeping them there, signs faded, paint mottled and peeling. It was worse than growing in Manehattan, now that I think about it. At least the Northern Quarter of the city was growing. Here… it was dying.

But we put it behind us quickly. We made our way across a bridge toward the Terraced District on the mainland, the shimmering water beneath us reflecting the moon and stars high above. Tail Aviv traditionally had little lighting due to the age-old fear of enemy bombardment, and so only the legal bare minimum light was there to lead us on our way. The Terraced District itself was like a breath of fresh air, so completely different from the Flooded District even with how little of it we saw. Ponies and plenty of zebras milled about the streets, filing in and out of the many stores both local and big-name. Many of them sat reclined in their seats at small cafés and enjoyed the common pastime of people-watching. The sound of crashing waves mixed with the muted sounds of idle gossip.

And something else.

As we neared our destination, we passed by an open plaza filled with a sizable group of very angry-looking ponies and zebras. Standing over them on the edge of a fountain was a young mare- one that we both heard long before we reached the scene.

In a guttural, Isorreli tone, she cried, “-and what happens next? Huh? Who cried for war? The rich, the old, the goddessdamn aristocrats! And who’s fighting it? The young, the poor, the people who always draw the shortest stick! And why do they want war? Over rocks, goddessdammit- coal and gems! And why do we fight? Because of the promise of pay to support our families, pay off our debts, and secure our futures! And so we risk life and limb, safety and sanity in the name of these barons who just sit on their couches and sit in their coaches! And they feed you with lies, saying we’d be starved of resources otherwise! Well the fact we’ve lost most of our foreign gem mine claims outside of Almarinia isn’t doing us any favors! See what happens when you let the rich declare war on a militarily superior enemy? It’s only because we’ve played catch-up that we’ve started pushing back! So how much longer will we have to go on? It’s been ten years! How much longer, huh?”

Luna slowed down to listen as we passed by, but I ushered her on. “Come on,” I whispered. “Let’s go.” She looked at me, then back at the crowd, then slowly nodded and picked up the pace.

And… there we were. “Taste of the World.” Bold name for a restaurant- and yet such a humble appearance. It was a very large restaurant to be sure- it had to be given the sheer number of people eating there on a daily basis- but it didn’t have the fancy upholstery or decoration one might expect from upscale cuisine at the time. It wasn’t Tenpony Tower by any stretch of the imagination. It had a very homey atmosphere to it. Plenty of wood and stone furnishing. It was warm and cozy- thankfully not too warm to the point I had to cool myself down- and very inviting. Even the waiting area was spacious and was able to accommodate even the two dozen or so patrons there- such was the size of the place. Thick, columns rose at least fifteen meters high off of the ground, and the center of the ceiling featured a large skylight with a view of the moon and stars above, all visible thanks to the dim lighting supplied by the large fire pits spaced evenly throughout the room- all magically protected, of course. And, just as the name boldly claimed, it featured staff of all shapes and sizes and species. Zebras, I noted, were quite numerous on the floor tonight.

We were showed to our table in short order. Again, no fancy glass pane or linen tablecloth. It was all wood- polished wood, of course. They had to let the cleaning staff catch a break somewhere. So there we were… Luna and me, me and Luna…

And her eyes were downcast.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” I said softly. “Outside I mean.”

She snorted, “Don’t be. I’m honestly glad there are at least some ponies who think that way- people rather.” The midnight-blue unicorn in disguise let out a deep sigh. “I wish more people thought that way. Equestria was founded on the principles of friendship, those Six Cardinal Virtues that we still hold dear to this day. Zebrica was founded on the principles of community- responsibility to thy fellow neighbor leading all the way to the Caesar himself. Why fight? Why wage war? It’s pointless.”

I reached a hoof across to grip hers, squeezing her fetlock gently. “I know it is, love. But for tonight, can we please set that all aside?” I smiled softly. “It’s our anniversary. Let’s focus on us tonight. Alright?”

Luna let out a soft sigh. “Yes… of course. Just… it’s all that’s been on my mind lately. You’re right. We should be thinking about what to order, really.”

“Speak of the draconequus, and he might appear,” our waitress, a buffalo heifer, spoke up as she approached and sat on her haunches to clasp her hooves together. “Good evening. My name is Crackling Corn, and I will be your server tonight.” She glanced between the two of us as she set down a pair of glasses and filled them with a water jug which she then left on the table. “Is this your first time to Taste of the World?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Yes it is.” Luna did as well.

Crackling Corn nodded and smiled to both of us, then tapped her chin and adopted a half-lidded look to her eyes as she appeared to study Luna. “Hm… you look like… you’re in the mood for something old-fashioned- something homestyle, something warm and filling and… perhaps a bit starchy? Bitalian. Are you Bitalian by any chance?”

“I am,” she responded, blinking in surprise.

The heifer smiled wider and then turned to me, again adopting that studying expression. She was looking very distinctly into my eyes. “Mm… hm… not quite homestyle. I’m guessing you’d like something you’d see in the Heartland, but… you’re a Northerner. Hokkaidan, possibly? Perhaps a blend of Hokkaidan and Equestrian fare.”

I grinned. “Ohhh, you’re good.”

“Welcome to Taste of the World,” Crackling Corn chuckled. “So! Here’s how it works.” She clapped her hooves together and offered us a pair of very thick menus. “I can give you the menu, and you can browse our fare. We have everything for every budget and for every taste. You name it, it’s there. Or…” She pulled the menus away and slid them back into her apron, “you can place your trust in my intuition and the kitchen’s and let us surprise you. It’ll be a custom meal for you and you alone, for this occasion and this occasion alone. Even though our Chef, Mister Blackthorn, is only seventeen years old, I assure you he does not disappoint, and mind you we’ve served dignitaries from nations and territories around the world. And it comes at the competitive price of fifteen bits, beverages included. I warn you, though- given what I’ve gleaned off of both of you, I doubt there will be either appetizers or alcohol involved, though the meal will be no less filling. So! What do you say?”

Luna and I shared a glance and a smirk. And she raised her eyebrow- oh, that expression… the one I fell in love with. The decision was clear. We turned back to our waitress and Luna answered, “We place our trust in you and the kitchen crew.”

“Good choice,” she said with a smile and a respectful nod. “I assure you we won’t disappoint.” And then she headed off.

Luna turned to me and giggled, “Are you as excited as I am?”

“I like to think so,” I answered with a smile. “I hope you came hungry.”

“After realizing you got reservations for us here? Well, I had a quick snack to keep me going-”

“It was cake, wasn’t it?” I interrupted, smirking.

She gawked and pointed a hoof at me. “Hey, I’ll have you know that my sister has great taste in mid-day snacks that keep me going through-”

“It was cake, wasn’t it?” I repeated, still smirking.

Luna paused, huffed, and turned away from me with her forelegs crossed. “Yes,” she mumbled out. I couldn’t help but chuckle, and she glared at me with reddenned cheeks.“These are very stressful times! I’m consistently in the mood for something scrumptious!”

“Ah, I’m just teasing, love,” I said, relaxing my smirk into an easy smile. “Anything to get you flustered.”

She scoffed, turning her muzzle away, eyes closed. Then they cracked- and so did her mouth in a smile of her own. The silver-maned mare eased into her seat and asked, “Enough about me. Let’s put the spotlight on you. How have your students been?”

“Ohhh… they’ve been relatively well-behaved,” I replied as I reclined in my seat. “Again, troublemakers disappear after the first few lectures. Still need to get those finals ready, though…”

“Even with your TA’s?” she inquired.

“Even with my TA’s,” I replied with a nod. “Don’t get me wrong, though. They’ve been a boon. Remember Trimtip?”

Luna furrowed her brow as she tried to remember. “Ah…”

“Cell phone filly?” I hinted with a grin.

“Oh, her,” she snorted, then blinked. “She’s one of your TA’s now?”

I nodded. “Surprising, isn’t it? Cell phones and stink bombs one year, TA and rising historian and equinpologist graduate student the next.” I let out a husky chuckle and then sighed deeply. “Oh… that was ten-and-a-half years ago, my first class. I feel old now.”

“Well how are your joints?” she asked.

“Still good, still good,” I answered, rolling my fetlocks to crack them. “Still do plenty of walking, especially when I’m back in Manehattan for the Northern Lights Festival preparations.”

“Speaking of the Festival,” Luna spoke up, tilting forward, “how has your new book series come along?”

“Well you know I’m part of Manehattan’s Northerner Cultural Committee now,” I chuckled. “They were aimed at academia, so the reception has been the usual so far. I plan to work on a series of texts more easily digestible for the general public, starting with a collection of fables. I’m thinking… Born from Snow: Stories from the North. Think that would be a good title?”

“I think so,” she responded. “Bear in mind I’m no publisher or editor by trade.”

“Still helps to have familial approval,” I said with a smile.

“Oh, like I’m really going to say otherwise?” she chuckled. “No, it’s a terrible title and you should feel terrible.”

I chuckled with her. “Hey, I like my familial approval. Don’t you?”

“Ah… yes, I can’t argue with that,” she said with a soft sigh. Her mood seemed to deflate. “... seems we can’t seem to escape it even on a night like this.”

My own smile slipped. “You mean…?”

“I mean the war of course,” she murmured. “When we teleported in, we saw how Tail Aviv has changed. When we passed through the plaza in, there was the protest… even in here, just listen. All around us.”

I drew quiet and perked my ears up, looking slowly around us at the nearby tables as I tuned into the ambient conversation, picking out snippets.

“Have you heard? They’re pushing toward Shattered Hoof Ridge. And if that happens, they might move on to Tail Aviv!”
“They won’t let that happen. We’ll push them back before then.”

“So your daughter came back?”
“Yes, she finished her tour of duty. Shot up in a few places, but nothing serious. Thank the Lorns… it’ll be so good to have her home again.”

“Did you see the protest outside?”
“Yeah, and frankly, I sympathize with them.”

“Do you think these new walls would hold up to a dragon attack? The dragons are aligned with the Empire, you know…”
“But the Empire hasn’t enlisted anyone but zebras in the war. Barring those griffin mercenaries, we have a distinct flight advantage over them. I really think that’s the only reason they haven’t pushed into the mainland yet…”

I looked back at Luna. Her eyes were sad, so sad. “It’s been like that this entire night. It’s like no matter where we go, we can’t escape the war.”

“Then maybe this might help,” Crackling Corn spoke up as she arrived with a tray on her back. She deftly transferred it to her hoof and set down a pair of covered platters for us. “For the madam,” She lifted the lid away, “grilled barley-corn polenta with a side of lentils and portobello mushrooms.” Then she did the same to mine. “And for the gentlecolt, hakumai rice with the traditional nori, furikake, and tsukidani- and with a side of oats rolled in fettered hay and simmered in dashi broth.” Then she set a pair of drinks down. “Now this was interesting. Normally, this kind of fare would be accompanied by wine and tea respectively. However, both the kitchen staff and I suspected that the madam would enjoy a tall glass of moonshine- made from the Falcon family farm in Neighples with fermented grapes grown only in moonlight.” She turned to me. “And for the gentlecolt, Croaka-Cola. This one we had to import from Aldorna since the companies here have started using high-fructose corn syrup over sugar nowadays.” She clasped her forehooves together. “Does it all look satisfactory?”

To be honest, it’s only after thinking back to that time that I remember her speaking at all. I was just… lost in the dish before me. It was laid out on an elegant lacquerware tray, but… my goodness the smell. Don’t know how they did it, but that smell sent me back to my family’s old apartment in Manehattan. No television, no couch, no dinner table. Just ate on the bed. Wasn’t much, wasn’t even the fully traditional Hokkaidan fare. No tea, no tundra flowers- Croak and oats dressed in dashi to add to what little we could get.

Just like what was in front of me.

“I’ll leave you both be, then,” Crackling Corn spoke up after what seemed like an eternity. As her hoofsteps trailed away, I slowly looked up at Luna. It was like looking into a mirror. Eyes wide, mouth slightly agape. We both shared the same powerful experience that tunneled back through the years.

“Wow…” Luna whispered.

“Yeah…” I did in turn.

“And the… and the chef is-”

“-seventeen years old.”

“Incredible.”

“Amazing.”

The storyteller licked his lips from the memory.

Words just can’t do justice. I would never have a meal, an experience like that ever again.

* * *

Home at last. Luna and me, me and Luna. We leaned on one another, enjoying one another’s closeness. Felt her bubbling warmth and saw the glow past my closed eyelids as she shifted back into her natural form. Heard her heavenly sigh, felt her heavenly nuzzle.

“Thank you for the wonderful night,” she whispered.

Grinned as I cracked an eye open. “Well it’s not over yet. What would it be without a little serenade?”

Saw her grin in turn and I trotted away, letting my tail trail against her as I swung for my keyboard. Switched it on, set it to Grand Piano- Warm.

Sat.

Sprouted.

Played.

And sang.

“Fly me to the moon,
and let me play among the stars.
Let me see what spring is like on
Jupiter and Mars…”

* * *

The storyteller let out a deep sigh, smile fading. He was silent for a good, long time.

Next day was a school day. Knew I had to wake up early. Had the alarm set. Everything.

Groaned and tensed as it went off. Felt her shift against me. Heard it switch off. Sighed. Relaxed. Felt reluctant.

“Five more minutes?” she whispered. “Please?”

Smiled and shifted closer. Revelled in her warmth and softness. “Five more minutes.”

Slipped away again.

* * *

He fell silent again, eyes downcast. He inhaled deeply as if steeling himself.

Those five minutes became twenty-seven. Twenty-seven minutes. In different world, maybe I would have gotten up earlier- on time or… really in five minutes. Maybe she would have. I wonder sometimes.

I wonder how different the world could have been.

I felt her rapid movement at my side, and I jolted awake with my heart rate skyrocketing. I looked at Luna first and saw her caught halfway into a seated position, looking forward. “Dawn?”

My eyes followed hers, and indeed I found Dawn Treader, Lord Protector before us. His expression was stern, his posture firm. “Luna, Frost, I am sorry to interrupt you, but there is a situation at Littlehorn,” he spoke, each word deliberate. “Do. Not. Teleport there.”

“What?” Luna swept herself over me and out of bed as I scrambled to follow suit. “Dawn, what’s happening? What’s going on there?”

He parted his lips but hesitated to speak for a moment. “We just know that there is a situation directly affecting the entire campus. We have not been able to actively reconnoiter the area due to-”

“Lord Protector, what kind of situation?” I asked, slightly raising my tone, struggling to hide my worry.

“Dawn, what is going on there?” Luna questioned again, stressing each word.

And now his slit eyes looked between the two of us and, unable to hide it any longer, he reported, “There’s been some kind of alchemical attack that’s affected the entire campus. Nopony’s been able to raise communications with them. The number of casualties are unknown at this time.”

Luna had already started galloping downstairs the moment the word ‘attack’ left his lips, and Dawn and I tailed her. “Then get in there and start saving them!” she cried as she swept the living room with her magic and finally snatched up the television remote, frantically working the controls.

The storyteller, without meeting a single gaze, slid a broken remote out. Its soft plastic buttons and the frame itself have melted and deformed.

“We can’t,” Dawn replied, his ever-present air of calm starting to falter with his rising tone.

“What?” I spun on him, panic animating me. “You can move faster than anything I’ve ever seen! You and Daze are the most powerful unicorns I’ve ever seen! What do you mean you can-”

We! Can’t!” Dawn’s roar left him panting, eyes wide. “Daze almost died going in there! Meadow and Storm are working to stabilize her, but we can’t risk sending any more of us! Nopony can get in there! It’s a death zone right now!”

A black ball of terror sunk deep into my gut, and I was left mirroring his expression. Then we both seemed to realize Luna hadn’t said anything since she started down the stairs. We both turned.

Luna stood with a look of abject horror on her face. She didn’t have to change the channel upon turning the set on. Was always ready to tune into the news.

The old, old unicorn reached up with a hoof to cover his mouth. His eyes were glassy. He let his hoof fall to continue.

And there it was. Littlehorn School of Magic. Covered in a swath of swirling pink. Many… many reporters on-scene. All watching in horror. Couldn’t hear their words, just couldn’t pick them out. Too many at once.

He swallowed and took in a deep, shaky breath.

I could see some of them crawling out.

His mouth worked slowly, no words coming out. Only tears. Until he found the strength to form them.

Just… they… waving the helpers off. Warning them with their last moments. Unrecognizable at that point… flesh… melting… coming undone.

Luna watched. Just watched. And then she finally collapsed without a sound.

He squinted his eyes tight and let the tears flow freely.

* * *

Minutes passed. With time, he stilled, straightened, and made eye contact once more. His expression was hard, etched in stone.

“I want to be alone.”

He inhaled deeply.

“I want to be alone.” That was all she said. She didn’t cry. She didn’t shout. She didn’t tremble. She made a single request, then disappeared in a flash of her magic. And with the sound of rippling cloth, I was left alone.

Just stood there. Goddeses know for how long. Fixed on the screen. Listening to empty words.

I felt empty.

And so I watched and listened. Tried to sift through speculation, find facts past opinions and accusations. Heard knocks at the door. No doubt it was Pinkie. Maybe some of her friends. Didn’t answer it. Didn’t want to see them.

I wanted to be alone.

He inhaled deeply.

No survivors. All students and faculty presumed dead. Dragons, too. Even after the cloud cleared, everything was…

A soft sigh.

There wasn’t enough to work off of to truly confirm their deaths. But we all knew.

Four-thousand-three-hundred-eighty-nine students. Four-thousand-three-hundred-eighty-nine bright young minds so full of promise. Just think- how many of those four-thousand-three-hundred-eighty-nine could have changed the world. Even if just one. Four-thousand-three-hundred-eighty-nine students, four-hundred-ninety-nine faculty members.

I was number five-hundred.

Another deep breath.

My mother and father weren’t strong in their own eyes. A feeble mare with progeria. A crippled stallion with a polio-stricken leg. And yet they survived the worst disaster in equine history up until The End. And there I was. Forty-six, going on forty-seven next month. Flecks of gray in my mane.

Now I knew what it meant to live with survivor’s guilt.

The old, old unicorn drew in deep once more.

Then came the address.

Princess Celestia stood alone. Even her radiant mane seemed… dimmer. Her eyes… I…

Deep breath.

“Good…”

A long pause.

“Greetings, my… loy… my fellow Equestrians.”

Even longer.

Then her golden magic started removing her regalia. In front of millions.

“I am no longer fit to rule. I abdicate the throne. That is all.”

And then she walked away. Bare. Back into her quarters.

Back into her cell.

* * *

That evening.

“Greetings. I speak to all of you not as Princess of the Night to her royal subjects but as a fellow Equestrian. I stand not above you but with you through these trying times.

“Many of you have no doubt heard by now of what transpired at Littlehorn School of Magic. Many of you are left wanting to find out what exactly happened. I will tell you now.

“At seven-forty-four A.M. local time, a group of zebra refugees seeking political asylum in Equestria came ashore at Moonstone Beach just south of campus and approached school grounds. They tried to make clear that they were seeking aid and shelter. Nobody on scene at the time knew their dialect, and, with so many zebras at their doorstep, they panicked and activated Littlehorn’s magical defenses. I regret to inform you that many innocent zebras were grievously wounded or killed until one of our students declared them to be refugees and convinced the school staff to deactivate the defenses.

“It was then that a zebra infiltrator with the Zebrican state security and intelligence organization known as the KSV took action. It is strongly suspected that one or more of the refugees had critical military intelligence that Zebrica wanted kept secret. That infiltrator, hidden among the refugees, activated an alchemical weapon of mass destruction known as the Maaier agent. That weapon resulted in the death of all of the refugees, all four-thousand-three-hundred-eighty-nine students at Littlehorn, their pets, and all but one of the five-hundred faculty members. The sole survivor is Doctor of History and Equinpology Frostbane Hokkaido Windchill, who was not yet on campus. The status of the zebra infiltrator is unknown at this time. Shujiaana, the student who courageously rushed to end the bloodshed, will be posthumously awarded our highest civilian honor, the Signet of Valor.”

A pause. A deep breath.

“I understand that many of you are afraid. My sister abdicated the throne. That was her choice and her choice alone. No one can dissuade her. Know this, my fellow Equestrians- I will do my sister proud. Not only had she ruled this great nation of ours for millennia- she ruled it alone for a thousand years, carried it through the greatest conflict of that day and age, and ended it with an age of peace and prosperity that lasted for more than six-hundred years. And when I returned and was freed from the foul Nightmare corrupting my soul and spirit, she not only forgave me but sought forgiveness herself. No other equine being alive can shine a light to hers. I will honor her. I will honor her.

“And now I have a message to Zebrica and Khotek in particular. We did wrong. We admit fault in our failure to understand who those people were. But so many thousands of innocent lives were needlessly lost today, Khotek- all for the sake of keeping secrets secret. The KSV’s actions not only against our citizens but its own can only draw my full condemnation.

“My fellow Equestrians, we have crossed the event horizon. There is no turning back. We are borne full steam ahead as I stand at the helm of our great nation. But as we observe this day of infamy...

“I pray I do not stand alone.”

* * *

Minutes later.

She appeared before me.

We stood.

We met eyes.

We embraced.

We wet eyes.

* * *

The next day.

I finally started answer the phone calls and the knocks at the door. Assured everyone- my parents, Zoleks, even Hummingbird and Song Spinner- that I was safe, that I was sound.

And Pinkie Pie. She brought all of her friends- even Rainbow Dash, fresh from the battlefield- over. Shared a few words. Learned what I could.

Six new ministries. Six new ministry mares. Wartime Technology. Peace. Morale. Image. Awesome. Arcane Science. Luna’s own set of advisors, readily accessible like the cabinet of a desk. Words. Words. So many words. So many condolences. I was tired of it all. I was depressed by it all.

Depressed… Crystal…

* * *

That afternoon.

Arrived in Canterlot. Headed toward the school. Lost in memory for a while. Then I met her there. Celestia.

Shared a few words. Asked a few questions. Received answers.

Embraced.

Parted ways.

* * *

That evening.

Headed toward the castle. Night Guards barred my access. Told me to halt.

Told them to just try and stop me.

They didn’t.

Strode all the way to her office. She was surprised.

We talked. At length.

She was adamant. At first. So was I. At first.

We talked more. At length.

We compromised. Fair’s fair.

We embraced. Tightly.

* * *

The next day.

Home. Stood in front of the mirror. Looked hard. Thought hard. Three words kept echoing in my head.

Repay the debt.

Repay the debt.

Repay the debt.

And so I switched on my cell.

“Frost?”

“Hello, Song.”

I started for my closet.

“Hello… I’m… I’m so sorry, Frost. I-”

“Enough. Please. You’ve already said it. Everyone I’ve met has already said it. I’m tired of it. I’m not here for more of your sympathies.”

I paused.

“... I…”

I sighed.

“... I’m sorry, Song. I… I didn’t mean that. Just… just… yeah.”

I inhaled deeply. And opened the closet.

“So… why did you call?”

“I’m calling because I need a favor from you. One you won’t like.”

Found Silver Skean.

“... name it.”

“Do you still have access to the city archives?”

Found Chrome Cleaver.

“Yes… I do.”

“Alright. Now Song, I need to stress now you don’t have to do this. It is completely your choice to follow my next request. Understood?”

Slipped them on.

Waited.

“Name it.”

“I need you to put together my old contact list. The phone numbers and addresses have changed, but the names haven’t. When I swept the slate clean, I left markers just in case. You’ll know them when you see them. Just look yourself up first.”

Looked up at the top shelf.

“... Frost… what are you doing?”

Reached up.

And slipped my trusty fedora on.

Putting the Mumei back to work.

* * *

Footnote: Frost- Level Up! Level 22 Reached!
Perk Added: Terrifying Presence- With all you’ve gone through, your cold demeanor and tone make for great intimidation. With a successful Speech roll (subject to difficulty penalties), you can inflict fear in your opponents’ hearts. Be warned- in some situations, this could start a shootout!

Unlockables added: Soundtrack- Just a Pony

Soundtrack- Escalation

Soundtrack- Children

Soundtrack- Theme of the Lunar Captain, Obsidian

Soundtrack- Obsidian Encounter

Soundtrack- Water and Wonders

Soundtrack- Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)

Soundtrack- Do. Not. Teleport There.

Soundtrack- Event Horizon

Soundtrack- Hokkaido Lives

Author's Note:

Took me long enough, huh? I hope it was worth the wait. I owe my thanks to the Fallout: Equestria community as a whole with a very special thanks to Lazer726 and now Doomande for pre-reading this for me. Welcome to the team, Doomande. And once again, thank you for reading. Please feel free to leave some feedback. I read every comment, and I especially appreciate constructive criticism. Also, check out the Ask Frost Windchill tumblr blog! I've actually started answering questions again!

So until next time (hopefully soon),
Adder1

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