• Published 24th May 2019
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Luna is a Harsh Mistress - Starscribe

When Celestia banished Nightmare Moon, she didn't go alone, but with her loyal army. Now they're trapped in an alien environment, with tensions high and the air running out. If they don't work together, their princess will soon be alone after all.

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Chapter 3: Hollow Heart

Gale was worn, bloody, nearly broken. The monastery stone was soaked with blood, dribbling down from the carnage above. His own foreleg was heavily bandaged, and the ledgers of grain and vegetables were splashed with bandit blood.

There were three of them dead on the floor near the stairs, laying right where they fell. Gale had only taken the time to remove the daggers from them, spreading them casually around the room where he could reach them. Behind him was the final, greatest target of the nameless bandits—a huge steel door, with the wealth of Celestia’s greatest monastery inside.

The only key was around his neck.

Gale wasn’t a warrior anymore, not since the slaughter at Day River. But he could hear the battle just about over above him. The bandits didn’t seem to be taking prisoners. What’s the point? As soon as Celestia discovers this slight against her, she’ll burn them from the planet. I’ll be too dead to care.

Hooves thumped on the wooden steps over his head, two sets. They walked like stallions, bulky and strong. Can I take two more?

They emerged at the base of the stairs, both ponies wearing black cloth over their whole bodies. Dark blue wrapped around their heads, though one still had a prominent horn. He couldn’t see anything but their eyes.

The horned one pointed at him with one hoof, splashed with blood. The other lumbered forward, hefting a crude stone axe. Stone? Captain Starsword hadn’t been wrong, the old fool. This really was a peasant uprising.

Gale was fairly certain he’d heard the old man’s dying screams a few hours ago.

“Go right back the way you came,” Gale said, stepping back, to put the table between himself and the attackers. “Leave with your lives.”

“We can’t,” said the unicorn—not a stallion, despite her remarkable height. A mare, younger sounding than he would've expected. “You have something we need.”

Gale glanced back at the shut vault door. There was a tightly-bound bundle of cloth on the floor there, shaped into a crude pony figure. Gale gritted his teeth, adjusted his wings in the loose monk’s robe. “Something you want,” he argued. “Not something you need. Turn around.”

The stallion swung his axe—crudely. It smashed into the table, wedging deep into the old wood, feet from where Gale was now standing. He didn’t wait, flipping one of the daggers off the table and jamming it into the earth pony’s legs. It barely sunk down an inch before the magic of earth stopped the blade, and he was forced to duck to doge an overhead blow.

The earth pony roared in pain anyway, flailing around madly. The table shattered under him as he stumbled towards Gale, recovering his axe. All the while the unicorn just watched from the stairs, silent.

Gale kicked another blade from the floor into the air, adjusting its path with one wing and bringing it up at the pony’s jaw from below. He dodged the retaliatory strike, which shattered the stone wall in a ring from where it hit.

“Die, monk!” the pony screamed, blood spraying from his mouth.

Gale recovered his first dagger, and shoved it into the stallion’s eye-slit. He squirmed once more, then fell limply to the ground at his hooves.

“Celetia guide you in your journey,” he whispered, rising to glare at the remaining intruder. “Are you the fool who promised them glory? Some… unlanded child of a forgotten house? Their blood is on your hooves.”

“I didn’t promise them glory,” the pony said, her voice bitter. “I promised them freedom. Freedom from the oppression they’ve grown under, near-slaves to the ones who own the land their families live on. No promise of a future, no chance for anything other than working to death. I showed them something better.”

I can’t fight another unicorn. The last one had given him the deep gash down his foreleg, which had been meant for his heart. As soon as she’s done with me, I’m dead. But she was also a mare. There was a chance, however small, that his death didn’t have to mean his failure.

“You showed them how to kill monks? The Ordo Celestial didn’t put their families into serfdom.”

“No, you just uphold the system that did. Strengthen their grip on the people with lies and meaningless worship. You are complicit in it.” The unicorn crossed the room slowly, watching his face with sudden interest. Gale lifted his robe a little, subconscious. In vain. “What’s your name?”

“Iron Quill,” he lied.

“It isn’t…” She was close now, though not quite within reach of his daggers. But she hadn’t lifted a weapon yet—he couldn’t attack her when she hadn’t done the same. It just wasn’t right. “I’ve seen you before. You were one of her generals. I’ve seen those golden eyes, I know that scar. You’re… Cinereous Gale.”

“Not anymore.” He reached down into his robe, removing the little seal of Celestia’s cutie mark, but not the key.

The more he heard her speak, the more he was beginning to realize he knew her voice, just as she had known his face. It hadn’t been obvious at first, but the more he heard… her armor was awfully thick around the sides.

“If you care about the ponies of Equestria, you will let me pass. The gold in that vault was stolen from them. It will help finance their freedom.”

Gale shook his head, then tossed the dagger on the ground at her hooves. “Might as well get it over with and kill me. I can’t win against an Alicorn.”

Her whole body tensed. The magic from her horn grew so bright in that moment that her thick wraps burned away in a few seconds. The rest started to fall away in strips, revealing the one Gale knew would be beneath. Princess Luna, her eyes wild with pain.

“I’d rather not,” she said. “Gale, you won the battle of Sun River. If anypony in the world can help me free the ponies of Equestria, it’s you. That gold doesn’t belong to the order that extorted it from desperate and starving serfs.”

He shook his head again. “There’s no gold in there, Princess. That was always a lie--the Ordo Celestial keeps up the appearance of extravagance. But it’s just an appearance. Most of the time we stock grain in there, but I ordered all of that removed. There’s nothing in there you can use.”

She raised an eyebrow, glancing at the stairs. “You’re willing to die… and to kill my stallions… for what’s in there?”

He nodded. “So were the other Cellerkeepers. They’re.... all dead. Your peasants fought well. But I’ll keep fighting too. You have to kill me.”

She shook her head. “I must have something from this place. I… yes.” Her eyes settled on him. “Arrangement can be struck. Show me what you hide, Gale. Do this, and I will allow you to trade your life. I will leave it behind in exchange. Do you agree to my terms?”

What choice did he have? This was an Alicorn—if she wanted, she could kill him with a thought, take the key, and have both the wealth inside and his life. He nodded, removing the necklace from around his neck and tossing it to her. “I accept.” He stepped out of the way. “But I suggest you cover your face before you open it.”

She did so, replacing the wraps, though she watched him curiously as she did. “I can’t imagine why. What treasures you think are worth dying over.”

She slipped the key into the vault, then turned it. One of the doors swung open.

The smell hit him first, the stink of many unwashed bodies in a small space. Through the partially open door, Gale saw a crowd of hundreds—mares and foals, from the land around the monastery. The farms these bandits had burned and pillaged.

Even now they looked out, desperate and terrified. Somewhere down in the vault, a child cried. Gale reached down, picking up the doll from where it had fallen near the door, and offering it to a foal crouching just inside. “I heard what your ‘army’ did to the ones who couldn’t get inside our walls,” he said. “I don’t want to hear it again, please.”

“The Gale of Dread cares about the lives of the innocent,” Princess Luna said, mocking. “Where was compassion when you set Rock Roost on fire?”

“I can’t go back and die with them,” he whispered. “Just… let these ponies live, please.”

“We made a deal.” The princess turned her back on him. “And you’re right. My army can make no use of that wealth. I will take your life instead.”

He closed his eyes, bracing for the blow. It was what he deserved—much less, really. He’d earned something agonizing.

It didn’t come. Instead, Princess Luna tapped an annoyed hoof on the stone floor. “Hurry up. We have to be gone before the Sky Calvary can be deployed from Cloudsdale. You of all ponies should know that.”

We. “Aren’t you going to kill me?”

She shook her head. “No, ‘Iron Quill.’ I said your life was mine. I didn’t say what I was going to do with it.”

"Sir!" The voice came from just outside his tent. Iron Quill sat up, wiping away the sweat of old nightmares. "One moment!"

The scouts gave him maps marked with several potential destinations. From the look of it there was intense attention to detail, with the heights of the hills and depth of the craters estimated with shading.

So he went to Permafrost, flying quickly across the camp to get a better look at what the other ponies had been doing while he tried to save their lives.

The madman was building fortifications. As he flew, he could see ditches going up, with pickets made from broken carts and ruined siege-equipment. Ponies with bows poked their faces from the burrows to salute as he passed overhead. Most were concentrated in the camp in the middle, where tents had been arranged in orderly rows. Permafrost’s was joined by all the other companies, though none looked quite as clean and perfect as his.

Quill wasn’t alone—Penumbra had come of course, his ghost in everything he did. She hadn’t even left the tent when he slept, hadn’t so much as glanced at the bed. When had she eaten? He didn’t ask.

But Permafrost’s banner flew high, in the center of camp, outside the massive tent he knew belonged to Stalwart Shield. The Lord Commander’s tent. His tent.

Iron Quill bit back his frustration, standing straight as he marched past the officers outside. They lowered their spears as he pushed inside, so confused by his crown and his uniform they neither attacked nor saluted.

Permafrost was there, along with half a dozen other captains. They were bending over a map on the table between them, talking in hushed voices. Quill might not know anything of war or strategy, but he knew that map. It was the Castle of the Two Sisters, with all its fortifications.

You stallions have lost your minds! We’re going to die in hours and you’re plotting the next attack? What kind of fools had Nightmare Moon found, that they ignored the obvious signs all around them.

“I didn’t invite you, Quill,” Permafrost said, not getting up. “You may wait.”

This time, he ignored it, storming right up to the table. “I require you now, Permafrost. Send these others away for a moment.”

Their eyes met. Permafrost’s eyes went to the place at his neck where a weapon might’ve hung, but of course there was nothing there. Quill could barely swing a sword, and knew nothing of daggers and bows. He carried none. “Is that so?”

“It is,” he said, pointedly adjusting the crown on his head. “I could call our princess here to resolve this, if you like.” He could hear Penumbra’s disapproving click of her tongue, though she didn’t say anything. No way Permafrost had heard that… She’s the princess. It’s okay if they think she’s the real authority. They’re right.

Finally, Permafrost nodded. “Very well, mares and gentlecolts. I’m sure the quartermaster has… an important reason for this meeting.”

He stood in place, forcing the captains and interim commanders to walk around him, until it was just the two of them in the tent. Permafrost’s body was tense, and he adjusted his belt so that the hilt of his sword was visible from under the table, catching the harsh sunlight from outside.

“It is foolish, what you’re doing,” Permafrost said. “Making an enemy out of me. Our relationship could be more of what it was.”

With me groveling and having to bow to your absurd demands, even though I outranked you? “Our time is running out,” he said. “We have two days and… fifteen hours, by my best guess. If I am not successful, we will all die. Why are you fighting me?”

Permafrost remained silent for almost a full minute, looking him up and down again. When he finally did speak, there was something familiar in his tone. It couldn’t be… pity?

“This is above your head, Quill,” he said, sounding sympathetic. “I know why you hold that rank—without it, you might be ordered to make decisions that would put the army at risk. If any of the captains could require you to do what we asked… but that does not mean you’re part of the chain of command.”

“Our princess thinks otherwise.”

Permafrost’s sympathy vanished in a flash, and his eyes hardened. “Our princess is testing our resolve. That is the true explanation for this. I understand what you’ve been ordered to do… the story you tell probably comes from her as well. But that does not mean it is the truth. It seems more likely that we are being… tested. Our obedience to the princess must be known. Our resolve before we return to the battle. Those who commanded before made… incorrect choices. They lacked faith. We must do better.”

Could he be right? For a moment, Quill doubted. But then he remembered the desperation. He had seen no anger on Nightmare Moon’s face, only abject despair. “I need an expedition to explore some nearby… caves, we found. If I’m right, one of them will lead to the hollow center of the moon. There are too many for me to search on my own.”

“I can’t afford to help you.” Permafrost rose, turning his back. “I have no doubt you’re right about those two days, Quill. Only we won’t be dying when they end, we’ll be returning to battle. I need to rebuild the command structure, to prepare to fell Celestia’s fortress. I can waste no more time on you.”

“You’re…” Quill fell silent, assessing the bat. He smelled of defiance, just daring Quill to push it too far. If he did… would Penumbra protect him then? Why was she here, if not to be the voice of Nightmare’s authority?

His hesitation was apparently the invitation Permafrost was looking for. “And don’t let me hear that you’ve wasted the time of any other of my troops, either,” he went on. “This charade is… indulgence enough. You have your own laborers in the supply corps. Waste their time, and not ours. I’m taking back those scouts.”

Quill left before he did anything else stupid.

“You’re just going to let him say those things,” Penumbra said, as soon as they were in the air back towards the stockpile. “You know he was inviting a duel. You could rip out his throat right there, in front of them all, and the Moon would’ve upheld your judgement.”

Iron Quill shuddered at the implication. But what could he say that wouldn’t make him sound like a coward?

He couldn’t think of an answer, so he told the truth. “He wanted a duel. If I fought him, I’d be dead. He could’ve nominated his weakest recruit as his champion, but as the aggressor I’d get no champion of my own. I’d be dead in the sand.”

They landed. Penumbra touched her wing to his shoulder, almost respectfully. “Not as stupid as you look, Quill. So maybe you can think.”

Is everything you say an insult, Voidseeker?

The scouts were already gone. But Sylvan Shade’s cart was still here, and that was something. He strode into the pavilion, feeling like the crown got heavier with every step.

The stallion sat up from where he sat at the table, settling down a heavy tome. “Quill, back already? How’d the expeditions go?”

“There won’t be any,” he said, grumbling. “Silver Needle!”

She was beside him almost before he called. “Lord Commander!” She saluted.

“Assemble everypony here, as soon as you can.”

“Even the pages?”

“Even the pages,” he said. Permafrost had said one thing that was true. Quill did have his own company. It might only be fifty hooves, without a warrior among them. But they had twice the brains of the rest of the army together. “Now.”

Whatever enthusiasm Quill had been feeling died after the third shallow crater.

It wasn’t as though he could be that angry with the scouts, not rationally. How could he possibly ask them to “find the entrances to the Moon” and expect anything but confusion and bewilderment.

“I hope the other teams are doing better,” Sylvan Shade said from somewhere behind him, apparently struggling to keep up. Just because it was easier to move here in some ways, that didn’t seem to be a guarantee that getting anything done would be easy. Sylvan Shade might be intelligent, well-read, maybe even some kind of quiet genius. But he was also not physically fit enough to be marching over hills in the scorching sun. His strength was… less than Quill expected from an earth pony.

Magic does weaken with altitude. But what did that mean for literally walking on the Moon?

“How long have we been going?”

Quill looked up to check the sun reflexively, then regretted it instantly, lowering his eyes and wincing. He wouldn’t be able to judge the time of day from that. “Don’t know. Six, maybe seven hours?”

“And… how many search areas left on our grid?”

Quill removed their copy of the map—or their quarter of the map, torn evenly where their group was going. There were several others, Quill’s laborers, carrying supplies and Sylvan Shade’s machines for the (apparently unlikely) event that they actually found anything.

“Uh…” He smiled slightly, relaxing. “One. Just one, looks like.” According to the tiny scribbled note, it was “unlikely to lead to anywhere significant.” But it was on the map, and they weren’t exactly overflowing with options.

So they walked. Quill’s hooves ached, his wings were covered in abrasive white dust, and sweat dripped down his mane. He wasn’t wearing the crown anymore, though he kept it close at hoof under one shoulder.

Penumbra fluttered overhead, barely a ghost in this strange place. She’d never landed during their trek, not for hours. I wish I knew how you have that kind of endurance.

But the Voidseekers were barely even ponies anymore. Their powers were supposedly like Nightmare Moon herself. Would they tell me about their magic if I asked? I’m the Lord Commander now.

But he didn’t ask, just walked. There was one opening left, then he could return to rejoin the rest of his crew.

“Hey, uh… Quill?” Sylvan asked. His voice wasn’t disrespectful when he said it, either. As a civilian, he had no obligation to use rank. “Is that who I think it is?”

Quill looked up, following his gesture. There, at the top of a distant slope, was the outline of an Alicorn, staring defiantly out at oblivion. Her back was stooped, her horn drooping. But magic still radiated out from her as it ever had during the duels with her sister.

We’re near that single huge crater. Nothing but ice down there, that’s not the way into the hollow center.

“Yes,” he said. “She’s keeping us alive, right now. Don’t distract her.”

It wasn’t as though they could afford to waste the time traveling to prostrate before the princess, while they still had so much of their own work to do.

“One more cave,” Sylvan said, his voice distant and pained. “Then we can… go back. See who actually found the way in. Some creature surely did…”

The walk didn’t take them much further at all before the ground started to slope. A wide ramp went down deep enough that they could enter total shade. Quill stepped down, closing his eyes and letting the sunless darkness surround him. Maybe he could just enjoy the peace for a little while…

Not long enough. He had to confirm that there was nothing here, so he could go back to the others. Hopefully their luck had been better.

“Anything down there?” Sylvan asked from over his shoulder. “Are you discouraged already, friend?”

“No.” He opened his eyes, and moved deeper into the gloom. The sand felt cool against his hooves, though still it rubbed abrasively wherever it touched. He could only imagine the difficulties ponies would have who got it in their lungs.

He didn’t have much further to travel before he made it to the bottom of the crater, and struck against solid ice. It thunked under his hooves, a hollow empty sound as empty as their hope.

“There’s… a little ice down here!” he said, turning back up. Now that he was at the bottom, he was briefly taken with the scale of the hill. It had seemed like nothing going down, with how little he seemed to weigh. But at the bottom…

His entire group were scattered on the slope above him, with expressions between helpful and bleak. Sylvan Shade was closest, and he approached a few feet behind. “Ice, huh? Not Lunarium? I was hoping if we died, at least we’d… be able to take some precious metals with us.” He removed a metal pick from his belt, sturdy iron but small enough to swing with one hoof. It was totally clean, without even a speck of moon-dust.

“No luck,” he said. “The others will probably be turning around by now too. I’ll fly back, the rest of you can catch up.”

“Suit yourself,” Sylvan said, bending down beside the ice. “I’ll take a sample. I’d like to study this, see if… maybe it would be safe to drink. At least I can die with a cool beverage, eh?”

Dust scattered around Iron Quill as he took off. It took almost no effort and he was flying, lifting lazily out of the crater to where Penumbra waited for him in the air.


“Same as the others,” he said. “There’s ice at the bottom of this one instead of metal, but that’s it. No entrance to the moon.”

“Because…” Penumbra rolled over in front of him, glaring at nothing. “Because maybe it isn’t? Because that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

Somewhere far away, Quill heard a pony shouting. He ignored the voice—if order was breaking down in the camp, maybe that was for the best. They had so little time to live anyway.

“We aren’t supposed to be here,” he said. “If you know something we don’t, you should share it. Maybe you know the secret we need to survive this.”

“I don’t know,” Penumbra said, circling around him again. “I just know that Equus isn’t hollow. It goes deep. I’ve been in caves that go so far down you can feel the warm heartbeat of the planet against your hooves below you. So far down that the air feels heavy and light itself is a memory.”

“Your… initiation,” he guessed. “The secret temple everypony talks about. It’s underground.”

“Well obviously.” She seemed to be grinning from behind the cloth, though there was no way to be sure. “Pegasus ponies rule the skies; earth ponies have the ground. Unicorns have their castles. Where would a bat’s domain be? In the skies below the planet. The dark, forbidden places. It goes just as far down as it goes up, that’s what they told us.”

“So why is it stupid that the moon would?” he asked, stubborn. But he didn’t get an answer.

A beleaguered page, Swift Wing, popped up from behind, his wings drooping with the effort. The poor bat was young enough that the trip had obviously been a great struggle for him. Though he had still caught up. “Please, Colonel… Lord Commander. Sylvan Shade says there’s something you need to see immediately. Back in the crater.”

Quill opened his mouth to send the page away. Whatever academic interest Sylvan Shade had would do nothing to help Luna’s army of revenge make it back to enact some of that revenge.

But on the flipside, Quill wasn’t seeing too many escapes left open to them. Maybe he could use a slightly longer trip away from camp.

So he turned, angling down towards the crater and the total blackness within. At least the shade would be easy on his eyes.

He landed with a streak of dust on one sloping side, letting the powder scatter and make for a smooth landing. He turned slowly, expectant. “I appreciate the support you’ve given to me, Sylvan Shade. But I do have the rest of an army to run. Even if no one but the princess seems to believe I’m in charge.”

Sylvan Shade was on his knees in the sand, hammering franticly at the ice. Chunks of broken gray surrounded him, and he swung now with the full energy of an earth pony. Cracks spread slowly around the disk of water at the bottom of the crater, widening a little with each swing.

“Quill!” he called, out of breath, but not slowing down. “I believe I found something that might be interesting to you.” He stopped abruptly, gesturing at the crack. “Look at the dust.”

Iron Quill hurried over, and watched. The dust was rapidly drawn into the opening, pulling little pebbles along with it. He held one wing over the opening, and could distinctly sense the current being pulled down.

“That’s pressure!” Sylvan exclaimed, excited. “Negative pressure, to be precise! It means the area beyond this ice has less air than the one outside it. Perhaps… and I don’t wish to get your hopes up, but…”

“The interior of the Moon,” Quill whispered. “The entrance.”

“We’ll know soon enough!” Sylvan lifted the pickaxe again, and started swinging. Quill stepped aside, calling loudly. “Ponies, bring those shovels, hammers, everything! Swift Wing, that was some excellent flying! I have a few more trips for you.”

If Quill’s hourglass-keeper was right, they had just under 20 hours left. Was that long enough to give them a hope?

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