• Published 27th Mar 2018
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Lunangrad - Cynewulf

Luna, newly returned from her exile, takes Twilight along on a pilgrimage into her own past.

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VI. The Angels of Mons

Sleep. The train rumbled on, eating up the miles like the serpent of the end. To a pony raised in the country, it would have been a cacophony of constant noise and chaos. But to a pony like Twilight, who had grown up in the belly of Canterlot with all of its prancing life, it was nothing more than a lullaby, and so sleep had come easily.

Dreams came, but not the dreams she would perhaps have liked.

She stood in the great hall of Maldon, which ruled the island Midway, and called again for her armor.

Her sister held her wings out straight as her magic donned the armor that her lover had brought from their apartments. Twilight caught Celestia’s eyes, and they shared a moment forged in the centuries of their sisterly bond.

Had she said anything, she might have reminded Celestia of every previous battle and every misadventure before this day. She might have whispered in the song-language of the well at Jannah of a dozen desperate stands and the ten thousand miles that bore their mark.

Her seconds returned. One bore her armor, and the other struggled under the weight of her hammer. Twilight quickly retrieved the latter.

“My lady,” the poor pony managed with a gasp. He landed on his rump and heaved.

“At ease, sweet Granite,” she said, and in a moment she too was armed and ready.

The sisters made their way out into the courtyard, trading swift words in the language they had picked up in the Crystal Empire a century ago, sure that no one would understand it.

“Celestia,” Twilight began, “I have a feeling that this is not an ordinary raid.”

“On that we’re agreed, sister mine. But what sort of machinations are at work? They bear the flag of Zandikar atop their ships. Zandikar is certainly warlike, but…”

“It’s too far to govern the island,” Twilight finished. “Yes, I thought the same. Even if the ruler of that place were a fool, which he is not…” She growled. “By the Well, do you not feel it in the air? There is a heaviness. A darkness. Do you not taste it,” she added in a low hiss.

“Not as you seem to, but something is wrong.”

They strode past the mustering warriors of Maldon, and Twilight watched for a moment as a young stallion stumbled briefly and then righted himself. It still bothered her to see younger ponies on the fields of war. Many things had lost their power over her, but she doubted that would ever cease to sting.

“Do you have some machination of your own, Celestia?” Twilight asked.

They approached the gate. Their own warband had already assembled before the walls of the city as soon as word had reached of the impending landing force.

“The beginnings of one. The city’s muster is impressive, but they have not been truly tested. Midway is named well--it’s too far for most to bother with.”

Twilight grunted. “Their center will break. Or the wings. They will not endure if the Zandikarian lord over there has even the slightest guile.”

“From the way that the Earl spoke, I suspect that the center will be firmest. The bulk of the greenest of his ponies are on the right. I trust Ruby and yourself can keep it firm.”

“Aye, we can at that.”

Celestia spared her a grim smile. “Good. I will leave Dawn on the right to raise the Sun Banner. I suspect treachery may be afoot here--there was little warning of a fleet so large, and Maldon’s navy is not known for its laxitude. I will keep the Earl alive.”

Twilight hesitated for just a beat, torn between silence and a comforting word. It was a rare thing for one of the sisters to not fight alongside their beloved, and not a thing either of them was used to doing.

“Your husband will do your old banner honor, Celestia,” she said, not touching it directly.

Celestia’s curt nod told her she had made the right choice. “Aye, so he will. Nothing for it, regardless. I trust that he will not in too much danger. The Earl wants his flank to capture the crags overlooking the plain, and you know that nopony plays king of the hill like Dawn.” She tried to laugh but it was a little strangled sounding. Twilight stepped forward and touched her forehead to her sister’s gently. Celestia nuzzled her, and then they parted.

Luna took her first life east of Jannah’s tall plateau, miles and miles away from the Well that she had first breathed beside. The world had been much younger than. It had been a child, and so had she.

A pack of Veldtwolves had chanced upon them and apparently been desperate enough to contemplate attacking alicorns. A dozen of them had come rushing in from all sides. Luna had not yet chosen her hammer, and Celestia’s battle magic was not yet developed. They had no idea how one would even use magic to fight, apart from crudely throwing their attackers through the air.

One of the wolves had jumped through her veil of levitating rocks and landed on her back. It’s claws had torn her flesh, and his hot breath on the back of her ears had driven her into a panicked, instinctual rage. She had thrashed. She had brayed. She had dropped everything but that singular wolf and with her magic she had ripped him to shreds in the air. Sometimes she remembered the feel of his blood on her cheeks and shivered, even a millenium later.

She had seen so much death since then, and every kind beneath the sun. She had held so many lovers, fair maids and grizzled warriors and everything beside, and seen how time and iron could steal all joy.

She never got used to it. Celestia always seemed to grow stronger, and she did not understand.

But it had always been alright, before. It had always been at the end of a long life, and she had had decades to ready herself for the final parting of the ways.

She cradled Ruby and she wept. She screamed wordlessly and her body ached in a thousand places and her legs shook from the strain of battle but she did not care about anything but the tiny, broken form in her tight vicelike grasp.

Ruby of Canter, Ruby who smiled, Ruby who had nuzzled her awake in the morning and kissed her crying eyes a dozen times over, who had languished and trained both beside her with a joy she had been trying to find. Ruby of Canter, and she was unrecognizable now. Had she not known through the Glorybond she might have never found her love again amidst the piled bodies of Maldon’s ford. She might have laid rotting, waterlogged in the river now blocked up with bodies.

No glory, no songs. She had been in the crush of ponies going back and forth across the ford, most of them fleeing before the corsairs with their artificer-cannon ringing. The banner of the moon had gone down in the stampede and was somewhere along the river’s edge. She had been crushed, and Twilight hoped to all the gods that ponies had ever dreamed that she had died then and not later, not amid the others, not struggling to breath with a shattered body and punctured lungs, their spears goading her everywhere she tried to crawl and Luna so far away, knowing nothing but panic as she searched everywhere, not hearing Luna’s cries and dying knowing nothing could have come for her but even more misery until sleep.

Twilight rocked back and forth.

She had not lost one to battle. Not like this. Lily had gone in old age. Marigold in foalbirth by surrogate. High Garden had slipped away in her sleep. Not like this.

Her legs finally gave out. She fell on her side and screamed again.

She heard Celestia long before she saw her.

Celestia stumbled up to her, tripping over the Zandikarian remains that Twilight had not bothered to move. She sank down beside her.

Twilight looked up and held high the body of Ruby like a foal presenting a broken toy to her mother, so that her sister could see. So that the whole world could see.

Celestia reached out. She faltered. Her legs went slack. Her eyes were blank.

“Dawn is dead,” she said.

Luna just looked up at the sky as the sun blazed indifferently to them all.

When Twilight stumbled into the only car with a supply of coffee, it was some time after noon. This was mostly conjecture, as her fitful sleep and flip-flopped schedule had completely destroyed her sense of time.

The only pony beside her in the cabin was, of course, Captain Moonflower. The batpony was out of his armor, which was odd but required more energy to speculate about than she currently had, and he had posted himself up in the corner of the car at a table. He shot her a lazy, smiling salute. “Hail and well met, Lady Sparkle.”

She looked at Moonflower blankly, yawned, and then sat down across from him.

“Coffee?” he asked.

She grunted in response, which he seemed to understand. She didn’t follow him with her eyes as he rose, but instead looked out the window.

The flat plains were starting to give way to hills. In the distance she could see the hills themselves driven forth like a broken army before the distant, menacing mountains. It was the drowsy, fitful sleep that made them seem to grow before her eyes, less mountains than they were jagged teeth at the edge of some awful maw. It was like a dragon larger than cities had settled down in the earth and waited for fools to wander in, only to realize their mistake moments before doom.

She shook her head. At some point, the captain had returned and there was coffee right under her nose. She didn’t even blow on it first or wait for it to cool before drinking. That it was made just the way she liked, almost perfectly as if she herself had made it, was something she filed away to think about later.

The bureau drawer in her brain full of “things to ponder later” was starting to get a bit full.

Eventually, she felt sane enough to speak. “How far until the city?” she croaked.

“An hour or so, at most,” the captain replied. He leaned against the wall again. “Presuming there are no more delays.”

Twilight’s ears perked. She raised an eyebrow, willing him to continue.

“The train has a bit of… a setback,” Moonflower allowed. “The engineer’s a bit nervous about having my lady aboard and gave an unfortunately exaggerated account of his or the train’s abilities, depending on how you read it all. He’s pushing too hard to prove himself right.”

She blinked. “That’s… stupid,” she said.

He laughed. “Someone’s more blunt than usual!”

“Being civil,” she replied, “requires two things: sleep and energy. I have had fitful sleep at best and currently am rather low on energy, so my store of politeness has run a bit dry.”

“Understandable.” He stretched. “I have to make my rounds and fetch my armor. A pleasant afternoon to you, Lady Sparkle.”

He rose, and she followed him as he left with her eyes, and then returned to staring out the window.

Inevitably, lethargy set in. She cursed herself for having not brought a book from her saddlebags to read as she sat, but then remembered that magic was still a thing that she did, and with some annoying yet minor difficulty summoned one to her. As it floated from one car to the other, the doors opening with further magic, Twilight Sparkle drained the last of her mug.

More coffee, and soon she was lost in the comforting pages. Rarity was always giving her new novels to read. “Honestly,” she would insist, “just trust me! You’ll adore this one!” And to give her credit, her insistent recommendations weren’t always off the mark. True, they were almost exclusively romance novels, but Twilight hadn’t ever been that fond of the sharp divide some loudly self-proclaimed educated ponies made between the “high” and the “low”. Besides, the book on high culture in the 700’s had been fascinating.

Normalcy is a tricky thing, an illusory thing. A hollow thing. It never lingers in one place for long like a foal at play. It dances in front of your eyes like a mirage, an after image that you’ll reach out for and try to hold close to you. But it dances. It always dances.

It danced away from her, and Twilight kept reading, chasing after it. She sought it like a hunter’s hound, trying to corner it in the misadventures of this affably idiotic mare in love that lived on the page, but the life drained out in front of her and eventually, inevitably, it was just a page. No mare, no story, no mood, no feeling. A page with words printed on it.

She shut the book. She looked at the cover and admired its audacious commitment to bad art. But that was it. Her interest did not return.

“Well. Damn,” she said, and slid the book away.
The mountains were closer now. A little too close. How long had she been reading? It had only been a few minutes, hadn’t it? For a brief second she felt dizzy.

Twilight, suddenly angry, shook her head. She stopped looking out the window.

But the thing about windows is that once you’ve looked out once, it’s hard not to keep looking. The window calls to you. Almost as if it has a will of its own and it is forcing you to see what it wants you to see, the eye is drawn out into the world without conscious thought.

The mountains were closer.

No. No. She was starting to lose her patience. The nightmares, the confusion, the rising unease, the strangeness of everything she saw and everywhere she went… no. She refused.

Twilight Sparkle was a pony of reason. She did not wander around with no aim as so many did. She was the pony who delved deep into the world’s secrets and picked at them until they surrendered to her. She didn’t ogle at phenomena as they lumbered into view! She chased the world down, stuck a pin in it, and interrogated it until she was spent. This was all so wrong.

She stood, pushing through the sense of vertigo.

What had she been doing? Where was she going? The only think she could think to do was find Luna and ask her what was going on. Ask her about why she kept seeing strange things and feeling strange things, why the world kept being off-kilter and wrong.

But before she could even make it to the door to cross into the next car, there was an awful screeching sound, like a panicked dying animal, and then the train lurched. Twilight had no time to cry out in alarm.

Her head crashed into the wall and then she knew nothing at all.