• Published 8th Sep 2012
  • 3,000 Views, 343 Comments

Starlit Knights - BlackRoseRaven

Darkness has come to Equestria, and the world is threatened with destruction. Can Luna stop it?

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Leaving Exile

Chapter Ten: Leaving Exile

Scrivener Blooms stood outside in the cold morning air, looking meditatively down at the unicorn Luna had dealt with in what she thought was the ‘kindest’ way possible. After disposing of the dead bodies – a process that had made Twilight shiver a little – and teleporting the last, mind-wiped cultist in a random direction with several grouchy phrases about what a pain in the flank it could be to not simply kill her enemies, Luna had finally returned to the poisoned cultist, regarded him for a moment, and then muttered that she knew just what to do.

She had sealed him from the neck down in dirt, leaving only his head sticking out of the ground, and then she had carefully laid a small warding circle around the cultist that both she and Twilight had charged with energy. Now it crackled with white static, and inside the circle, the unicorn looked groggy and bruised, his eyes refusing to focus, his horn sparking occasionally from the anti-magic field he was effectively trapped inside.

Scrivy rubbed quietly at the scarred side of his face, and the unicorn looked blearily back, far from threatening or imposing despite the fact that he and three others had effectively dropped a mountain on their home last night. A home that Twilight Sparkle had insisted on helping him clean while Luna had listlessly flopped on the bedding, looking miserable and grouchy as Scrivener and Twilight had puttered around, cleaning things up, until they’d finally both joined her and gently soothed her with words and physical affection.

He paused, glancing quietly up towards the top of the rebuilt overhang, over which Twilight had added an extra layer of thick netting of vines and ivy, looking at where Twilight and Luna were sitting at the top, quietly talking as they surveyed the dawn together… and even though they were high above and he was down below, he could hear everything that was said, he knew that Luna was passing every last word down to him. It always made him smile, even now, with how dedicated and loyal she was despite how it might seem otherwise… but she insisted on sharing everything with him that she could, even when – or maybe especially when – Scrivener felt undeserving of it.

He shook his head a bit, dragging himself out of his thoughts before he looked quietly down at the unicorn, who still didn’t seem to even recognize who he was looking at despite how almost effortlessly they had reacted to him last night, dealing with him so fast he had barely been able to distract them long enough for Luna and Twilight to activate the shielding wards… and, despite wanting to do little apart from walk over and kick the male in the face until his head came off, Scrivy sighed and forced himself to lean down, asking quietly: “Do you understand me?”

The unicorn stared at him blankly, and somehow it was more disturbing than when he had been an emotionless cultist, Scrivy grimacing a little before he asked in a louder, clearer voice: “Do you know who you are? Do you remember what happened last night?”

The cultist only continued to stare, and Scrivener began to shake his head… before he frowned quietly, stepping forwards and leaning down as he realized something else was different. Not just his expression, the sense of… befuddlement about him, but his tattoos had faded out almost entirely… and without even having to glance up, Scrivy concentrated and voiced his question to Luna in the form of thoughts and images. He felt her tense up in surprise above, and then slowly relax before she said quietly, her voice echoing down to him as if she were standing beside him: “Twilight, my daydreamer has discovered something of importance. Something that I also feared… but there is no rush now. We will have to bring him to Celestia all the same, but I believe… he will no longer be a threat, and may not proffer much in the way of information either way. Scrivener Blooms, if thou art feeling brave enough… erase the warding circle, and see how the pawn reacts. If my suspicions hold true, thou wilt be fine, and if not, well. I doubt he will summon up any greater fury than I crash upon thy head every so oft.”

“Always so positive Luna, it’s a real talent of yours.” Scrivy murmured quietly, shaking his head and smiling despite himself, and then he sighed a little and nodded before stepping a hoof forwards onto one of the runes and making a face at the sizzle that shocked over it before he dragged firmly backwards, tearing a line through the dirt and the etched symbol… and a moment later, the entire runic warding circle fizzled out, the unicorn gasping and convulsing as the tattoos on his features writhed… then literally burst off his features like smog, silently flickering upwards into the air.

Scrivy stared at this as the unicorn stared dumbly back… and then the imprisoned equine smiled at him with all the naivety of a child, saying in a slurred voice: “Mister… I seem to be stucked in here. Can you help me up?”

And Scrivener closed his eyes, shaking his head slowly as he understood even without the link to Luna kicking in. The one part of his old job in Canterlot he had always enjoyed and actually done well was archiving… and in particular, old records and legends, so-called ‘fantasy tales’ about the old magic and monsters that had existed before Equestria had become the peaceful utopia it had been for the thousand years the darkness had receded.

This he recognized from an ancient ballad about Nightmares, and in particular, an ancient, evil witch who was thought to have brought them and many other abominations into the world. While Luna scoffed that the Song of Melinda was wrong on all accounts about the wicked witch… everything else in the poem was true, including… “‘Oh mind-tapped servants, robbed of power, cursed with strength, her will be done forevermore and a day, as thou plunder and plow beneath the full moon’s sway.’”

“Mister?” The unicorn looked up at him curiously despite his predicament, seeming unaware of what was going on… and Scrivener Blooms smiled faintly as he leaned down towards him. “What were you saying?”

“I was saying… well, just remembering something.” Scrivy replied quietly after a moment, and then he shook his head quickly before sighing softly, asking gently: “Do you remember how you got here?”

“The moon made me smart, the ponies said I was going to learn magic… and then I was very cold.” The unicorn frowned a little, looking down quietly before he looked back up worriedly, asking nervously: “Did I… do a bad thing?”

“No. No, not at all.” Scrivy reassured quietly, and then he straightened with a bit of a grimace, glancing up and adding softly: “My friends will be here shortly, alright? They’ll help you up out of that hole you… you fell into.”

“I’m clumsy.” The unicorn smiled up at him, and Scrivener smiled faintly back, a deeper sadness than he wanted to admit to feeling tearing at his soul as he looked with soft sympathy down at this poor, used unicorn… more than likely a few points beneath the average IQ, probably from a larger city where his disappearance had either gone unnoticed… or with sick gratitude. “I really wanna go back to the home.”

“Where is your home? And what is your name, do you know?” Scrivener Blooms asked quietly, glancing down towards him as he felt Luna’s own sympathies mixing with his own, heard her quietly explaining the situation to Twilight in his mind. ‘Twas only a pawn, as I feared… nothing more than an expendable digit of the Ekleíp, whoever they are. A test thrown at us by mad ponies obsessed with Ragnarok… and so cowardly, they would make puppets of others to do their dirty work for them. Specifically… the mentally ill, the foolish, and society’s other outcasts. They link their minds together, like ants, like a network… and put in charge one powerful mage who in all likelihood was not here tonight… but he would be the controller, and they would be like sponges for information, absorbing everything they heard, believing it with all the fervor of fanatics, before being sent out into the world to do the bidding of Ekleíp… to be used as cheap, expendable troops, easily replaced, more toys than soldiers to those who rally against us. There is little we may learn from him, perhaps… but perhaps Celestia can glean more with her particular talents.

The unicorn, meanwhile, was musing over the questions that Scrivener had asked as if unsure whether he should answer them or not… before he finally nodded firmly a few times, looking up and saying carefully: “The nice ponies at the center always-always said that if we ever got lost, to tell the helpful ponies we’re from the big clinic north of Snow Saddle. And my name is Ross… but the other ponies always called me Rossc. I didn’t like that name too much. It sounds bad. It made me feel bad.”

Scrivener smiled a bit despite himself at this, despite the twinge that went through his body at the name of the town: Snow Saddle was the closest thing to a metropolis in the far north, since even Trotronto was further towards the south, only a day or so from Canterlot. Snow Saddle was close enough to North Neigh that he had actually been there more than once, back when he’d been working for his family… and it made him wonder if there really was something awful moving towards his old hometown… not that it could really get much worse up there than it already has, at least…

He shook his head slowly… and, five minutes later, he was joined by Twilight and Luna, the winged unicorn striding towards Scrivy first and looking into his eyes as he gazed back, sharing thoughts and memories in a short, quick burst as Twilight approached the unicorn hesitantly. The trapped equine only looked up at her with the same gullible smile, however, saying kindly: “Hello. Are you the nice earth pony’s friend?”

“I… I am. Hi.” Twilight replied awkwardly, hesitating as she looked down for a few moments at him, and then she looked up at Luna and Scrivy as they both smiled a little and turned towards her. “You two are doing that thing again. But… what are we doing with him then?”

“Twilight Sparkle, I am surprised at thee. We are helping the poor fool up, of course.” Luna said kindly, and then she simply flicked her horn, and the earth around the unicorn trembled before cracks spread through it and it collapsed in a sinkhole around the male, letting him wiggle free with a grunt of surprise. And, as he hauled himself up, Luna offered a hoof, saying quietly: “My apologies for leaving thou out here for so long, child. Let me help thee stand.”

“Thank you, miss. You’re a pretty pony.” Ross smiled awkwardly up at her, looking shy as he allowed her to help pull him up above the ground, and he blushed a bit as he stumbled a little on his hooves before standing, looking curiously over his own shoulder at the dirty cloak he was still wearing. “Was it Nightmare Night? Is that why I’m all dressed up? They don’t usually let us dress up at the center.”

“It was a special costume party, worry not.” Luna smiled gently, soothingly in return, her anger from the night before forgotten in sympathy for the poor, abused unicorn’s plight. “We shall take thee home when we can, but rest assured that thou art safe, and we shall allow no harm to come to thee. In fact, we shall take thee on a wonderful trip to Canterlot first… perhaps thou shalt even meet Princess Celestia herself in time. Would that not be a treat, my friend?”

“But am I allowed to? I dunno if I’m allowed to be away from the center that long.” Ross said worriedly, then he paused as he studied Luna, frowning a little as his eyes roved up and down her thoughtfully. “Do I know you, pretty pony? You look real familiar. Your mane looks like it’s all made of stars, too.”

“My name is Luna. Does thou recognize it?” the female asked quietly, and Ross looked at her blankly for a few moments before he shook his head and only smiled, and Luna smiled back, asking quietly: “And what about the name Nightmare Moon, does thou recognize that?”

“Oh yes, the Nightmare Night lady. She’s supposed to be a ghost, right?” Ross smiled at her, saying kindly: “They always tell us at the center not to believe in ghosts. Nightmare Night is all about candy anyway, isn’t it?”

Luna smiled a little more at this, nodding in return and responding: “’Tis close enough to the truth, my new friend. Tell me, can thou do any magic?”

“Oh no, magic is too complicated for me.” Ross smiled at her, and then he laughed when Luna leaned forwards, her horn glowing quietly as a waft of warm air whooshed soothingly along the male’s body, his cape falling loose and the dirt and grime that had smeared over his pale white body and black mane crumbling away. “Hey, that tickles!”

“It will be but a moment longer, I am simply making thee a little more presentable, child.” Luna replied gently, and Twilight softened as she gazed from the winged unicorn to the smiling, gullible male, as his body was cleaned and cleansed until he was all but sparkling, standing with a beaming expression on his face as he swayed a little on the spot. “There. Much better, is it not?”

“It is. Thank you pretty lady.” Ross said warmly, and he smiled for a moment as he looked back and forth over himself, the cutie mark on his flank of a black puzzle piece almost gleaming against his pallid coat. “You made me look really nice. I like that.”

For a moment, Luna only looked at him, studying him… and then she simply nodded before glancing over towards Twilight, saying quietly: “Please wait but a moment, my student, my darling. Scrivener Blooms and I must fetch some things from inside, to take back with us to Ponyville. Ross, thou does not mind waiting with Twilight, does thou?”

Ross shook his head quickly, continuing to look happily over himself, and Luna and Scrivy exchanged soft looks as Twilight blushed a little, hesitating… but then nodding with an awkward mumble, still looking a little wary. By now, however, the two ponies had judged the male to be far from a threat any longer, as they turned and walked unhurriedly back to the cabin, Scrivener Blooms shaking his head as Luna flicked her horn to open the cracked door. “Poor guy. I’m only glad you’re not trying to murder him anymore.”

“Had I understood they were thralls from the beginning, I would have been more hesitant to kill. Only slightly more, but all the same… now that he is no threat, no longer even aware of what has occurred… how could I hold evil against him?” Luna shook her head slowly as she stepped into their damaged cottage, gazing meditatively at the ground. “’Twould be hypocrisy. And while I do not mind being a hypocrite in most aspects, I shall not hold the forced evils of others against them after what I have experienced myself with Nightmare Moon… after what we experienced when our sorrows and bitterness were amplified in so much the same way by a force of darkness.”

She sighed a little, murmuring quietly: “The world is an easier place when thou can believe that thou art doing right, or greater good in the name of harmony and peace. But I am not like my sister, able to blind myself with light and glory… I have lived in darkness. I have seen shadows. I have experienced evil from both sides of the field… and know it is but an illusion, a term we sadly apply to those who are different from us, to those whom we do not wish to understand, ‘lest we forget our hatred and our anger.” She stopped, then headed quietly through the den towards the back door, calling quietly over her shoulder: “Beloved, sad as this makes me… thou knows what we must do.”

“Yes, Luna. I understand… but we’ll return, when this is all over. After all… you’ve got that painting for Twilight to finish, and we have a lot of repairs to do. This is our home, and no cult is going to change that.” Scrivener Blooms replied quietly, and Luna paused in the kitchen to glance over at him… then smile softly and nod firmly once. Scrivy watched her as she approached the door, and he laughed a little and shook his head slowly, murmuring quietly: “As long as we’re together at the end of the day. That’s what matters.”

All the same, Scrivener lingered for a moment, gazing at the painting hanging above the mantel that Luna had done for him so long ago… and then he shook his head slowly, turning and heading towards the bedroom as he clicked his tongue lightly. Immediately, Sammy scurried out from where he had hidden himself amidst a pile of cushions, running quickly after the male as Scrivy said quietly to the skeletal pseudodragon: “We’re going on a little trip, Sammy. Luna’s worried it’s not safe here anymore, so we’re going to stay in Ponyville for the next few days, while we get the last of everything ready for our trip to Canterlot, and then North Neigh beyond. We’ll… we’ll come back when this is all over, but for now, we need to stay in a place where we know we’ll be safe for a little while and not in danger of being crushed beneath an avalanche.”

Sammy chirped quietly at him, and Scrivy nodded a little as he pushed into the bedroom, glancing towards the armor stands with a faint smile before his eyes roved up to the star-painted ceiling above, murmuring softly: “I don’t like it much either, and Luna hates it. But she knows this is the safest way to go about it, too… we can’t put ourselves at unnecessary risk, especially not if we’re only dealing with… thralls, Luna called them, right?”

Sammy mimicked a shrug, and Scrivener Blooms smiled a bit down at his pet, his friend, nodding to him before he reached a hoof out and petted him quietly. “Look on the bright side. At least you don’t have to eat or anything. Really, you’ve got the easiest trip of all of us… for the living dead you’re a lot lazier than most ponies would expect.”

Sammy huffed at this, and Scrivy laughed a bit before he finally forced himself to stop stalling, approaching the armor stands and reverently lifting the helmet from the slightly-smaller rack, looking quietly down at it. Sleipnir’s heavy helm, with wings that spread from either side of the heavy silver protector, a few pockmarks and scratches over the metal that were like tattoos of honor throughout the polished metal. He smiled a little at this, then almost hesitantly slipped it carefully on, rolling his shoulders slowly and closing his eyes as he thought of how different he’d been when he’d first gotten this gift from Luna… how, so few years ago that felt like so many, he had been nothing more than Court Poet, who would never have been able to do any of the things he could do today.

He paused, then reached forwards and pulled the black leather vest from the rack next, slipping this over his body and rolling his shoulders once he slid it onto his frame, feeling it tight against his hide. The first layer, comfortable protection, the cushioning buffer… before he began to slip on the second layer of armor, the black and silver plates adorned with symbols of the night sky locking tightly over his frame as he slipped them carefully on, remembering how so long ago, he had whined about the Royal Guard armor Luna had made him wear on their trip… and now, if anything, he was beginning to appreciate the feel of leather and steel shielding his frame.

He stepped back and examined one of his limbs as he finished locking the last of the plates into place, smiling a little down at himself, feeling the care and compassion and wish for his safety that Luna had put into forging this armor. She always confessed she was never as good as Sleipnir had been, that her arts relied more on enchanting and shaping metal through will alone than the talents of the forge… but Scrivy thought she had done a stupendous job all the same. From the black cusps that locked over his shoulders, to the silver-chain protected joints and the obsidian breastplate… he felt secure in this gear, and blessed beneath the helm of Luna’s beloved brother.

He tested the floor with his hooves, letting his body adjust to the weight: the only heavy plating was over his actual body, the patterned black steel over his limbs far lighter to allow for ease of movement. He smiled a little to himself as he rolled his shoulders, then glanced up as Luna pushed her way into the bedroom, saying quietly: “Thou must always preen so, mustn’t thou? But neither Twilight nor Ross seem aware our presence has been amiss for some time now… I believe that finally she is speaking to him. I wonder why she was so awkward, daydreamer, does thou know?”

Scrivy shrugged a little after a moment, looking over towards her thoughtfully before he said meditatively: “Well, maybe it’s just awkward, seeing you all… nice-hooves after gleefully squishing one of them last night with a rock.”

Luna huffed at this, then she simply flicked her horn disdainfully upwards, her armor glowing bright blue before it tore itself off the rack and rapidly spun around her as she reared back, sapphire dragon-scale leather and black metal plating locking over her form before she stomped down and anchored herself with a spark of lapis energy, grinning slightly as her cyan eyes flicked towards the male. “Now, daydreamer, thou knows that at times my temper gets the better of me. Furthermore, ‘twas not as if there was much choice in the matter at the time… we knew not what we were dealing with, and I had to protect all three of us from permitting the enemy to gain the upper hoof. But worry not, my handsome daydreamer… I shall save my wrath for the Ekleíp puppet masters instead of their thralls and pawns.”

She paused, then flexed a bit, closing her eyes as she arched her back and took a slow breath… and Scrivy smiled a little, drawing his eyes over her armored body as she murmured in a softer voice: “And… it is sad, Scrivener Blooms… but to don this armor… it completes me, in a way. It gives me a renewed sense of strength and purpose, even in these dark times… it is like the home I carry with me.”

Scrivy smiled a little more at this, drawing his eyes over her body: over the supple leather that clung against her body, gleaming and as polished as the plates of dark metal that protected her shoulders, her back, and her upper limbs. Her wings stood comfortably through carefully-shaped slots in the lightweight body armor, furled against smooth-plated sides, and her mane spilled out from beneath the beautiful blue helm that covered her skull as her long, starlight tail flicked to the side, before she gave him a flat look as he asked mildly: “Doesn’t that make you a snail?”

“Oh, thou art the epitome of hilarity, Scrivener Blooms. Now hurry thyself up, I shan’t wait for thee forever.” Luna retorted, then she turned back towards the doorway, glancing down at a saddlebag as her horn glowed, and this quickly floated up and dropped over her back, strapping itself into place as she added softly: “I have most of the things we shall need and desire. I leave the rest to thy discretion.”

“Because that always turns out well.” Scrivy said plainly, as Sammy hopped up on the equine’s back, and Luna gave him an amused look over her shoulder before she strode out into the hallway. Scrivy shook his head with his own smile, and spent only a few seconds quickly tossing a few things into a dusty pack that had already been tossed onto the bed before he threw this onto his back and headed outside to join Luna, Twilight, and the smiling Ross.

Scrivener booted the door closed behind him as Ross turned wondering eyes from Luna to the earth pony, studying them curiously as Twilight looked at them with a bit of a blush and a hesitant smile… and then Ross asked curiously: “Are you two guards from Canterlot? Except your armor looks really different and stuff. And you both don’t look at all like guards at all, they’re usually flying ponies or horn ponies… and you look like you’re both, but you’re neither. But you’re all in that armor and stuff, all the same. That’s funny.”

“Perchance we are guards of a different sort then, young one.” Luna said gently, and Ross nodded slowly before he looked thoughtfully down, and the winged unicorn turned her attention to Twilight, instructing quietly: “Pay close heed to me, my friend. This last show of strength shall likely as not be of great interest to thee.”

Twilight nodded a few times, sitting back attentively, and Luna slowly turned around as Scrivener strode up beside her, then smiled a little when the winged unicorn nudged him firmly, nudging her back before they both dropped their heads forwards in easy synchronicity, breathing hard as they both focused, Scrivener letting Luna’s thoughts spill through his mind as he added his focus and energy to her own already-impressive supply of both. And slowly, Luna’s horn began to grow brighter and brighter, sparking with energy before she and Scrivener reared back at the same time, the same expression of concentration on their faces, their eyes clenched shut as the earth beneath their hooves rumbled… and then slowly, the cabin sank down, down, down into the ground, rumbling loudly as the cottage vanished into the ground as soil and rock spat upwards in almost-liquid streams around the edge of the sinking structure.

Twilight and Ross both stared raptly as the cottage disappeared and left behind only a sunken crater as the earth settled, a few rocks pattering away from the jagged cliff face and bouncing quietly through the shallow bowl left behind before Ross began to stamp his hooves against the ground, looking amazed as he said cheerfully: “That’s incredible! Golly, I wish I could magic like that… you must both be real powerful magician ponies, is that what you guys are?”

Scrivener and Luna exchanged a softly-amused look as they both slowly relaxed, the aura slowly fading from around Luna’s horn as Twilight stared for a few moments longer, then she shook her head and laughed a bit, saying finally: “They’re the best magician ponies in Equestria, Ross… sometimes I think even better than Princess Celestia, when they work together.”

“That must be really something.” Ross marveled, leaning forwards a bit, and then he glanced up and concentrated visibly, his horn starting to glow… but nothing further happened, even as Twilight visibly tensed. “I really wanted to be a magic pony too. Some ponies told me once I could be a magic pony… but they just made me cold. They made me forget… a lot of things. But it’s okay, because when I woke up from everything, you were all here and you told me you were going to help me home, and I believe you, because you three don’t hit me or call me names, or have bad looks in your eyes. All I can do is make my horn shiny.”

Luna smiled awkwardly at this, studying the unicorn and obviously thinking on what to tell him before she said in a quiet, honest voice: “I believe, Ross, that no matter what has happened to thee, or who thou art… there is great potential inside thee, waiting and untapped. Now come, then, new friend, and we shall walk through the Everfree Forest… but thou must stay close, and stay upon the path, and we shall protect thee from its dangers.”

“Okay.” Ross nodded, looking warmly across at Luna, and Luna gazed back with almost-maternal protectiveness for a moment before she shook her head quickly as Scrivy grinned despite himself, considering the fact the unicorn, for how he acted, was likely the same age as him… but he understood Luna’s feelings all too well all the same. “I trust you.”

“Then I shall thank thee, Ross, and hope I do not betray thy trust.” Luna replied quietly, nodding towards him before she headed towards the path, and the others followed her, Scrivener gazing quietly ahead, Ross beaming warmly around, and Twilight falling into anxious pace on the unicorn’s other side, soft but visibly nervous all the same.

The walk was thankfully uneventful: every now and then, Luna or Scrivy would glance towards the side of the path as if checking for something that was watching them, but there was little disturbance on their travel apart from the occasional rustling of the trees around them. The morning was crisp and clear, and the sun shone down from the calm blue sky, white clouds rolling slowly through the cerulean sea above as they strode past the occasional patch of frost over the earth: winter was coming, and when it hit, it would hit hard.

They found the gates of Ponyville sitting open, and a minotaur calmly sipping coffee, the paper cup tiny in his hand and the half-eaten muffin in the other even smaller. He bowed to them as they walked by, and Scrivy and Twilight had to almost drag Ross onwards as he stared for a few moments at the enormous bull-creature, before whispering loudly as they continued into the village: “Wow! Did you guys see that? He was so tall!”

“Yes, Ross, we saw it.” Scrivy said mildly as they strode easily through Ponyville, the male shaking his head a bit as he smiled despite himself before glancing to the side as he heard a loud, irritable shout, smiling a little as he added: “Looks like Cowlick’s already hard at work.”

“Excellent.” Luna said cheerfully, promptly changing course and instead heading towards where a grease-splattered mare was working cheerfully on one of the large, cubical sentry devices, and the winged unicorn asked clearly as they approached: “And what manner of mayhem art thou up to this morning, ambiguous-gendered creature?”

Cowlick snorted in amusement at this without looking up from where her head was buried in the open back of the machine, the two ponies dressed in coveralls beside her glancing up with blushes as she replied easily: “You’re one to talk, Lady Luna. Way I hear it, you’re the one who spends all her time acting like a dude. You’re almost as bad as Dash.”

Luna laughed at this, shaking her head before Cowlick finally slipped backwards and free from the back of the machine, grinning widely as she straightened and absently brushed her hooves against the front of her ripped denim vest, her messy, short-blonde mane spilling wildly out from beneath the red bandana tied tight around her head, one long lock twisting upwards above her eye. Her ears flicked, the silver piercings through them and one nostril glinting as she surveyed the group thoughtfully, leaning forwards over the back of the machine, reddish-brown coat streaked with grime as she tossed a wrench down and asked curiously as her blue eyes settled on Ross: “Who’s the newbie?”

“He is… a unicorn we found outside our home some time ago.” Luna said delicately, and Ross smiled and nodded a few times, Cowlick giving them an amused look before Luna continued in a more-serious voice: “I heard that thou would be joining us as one of the Starlit Knights, Kilby Kwolek. I wished to extend my welcome to thee and am also quite curious as to what information thou hast gleaned upon the examination of these strange mechanical devices.”

“Well, hell, somebody’s got to come along and stop Dash from being an idiot, and around AJ he just acts dumber, always trying to impress her like they ain’t already married or something.” Cowlick said mildly, flicking a hoof, and then she grinned a little as she slapped the top of the machine. “Once I got my hands on the schematics for this garbage, was easy to figure out that these are way more magical than they are mechanical. Oh sure, they still got plenty of gears and moving parts and nonsense, but they’re powered by magic, and they got magic ‘brains’ too, so to speak. We already removed those key components, which hook into some fancy intelligent eye setup I ain’t never seen outside of the Manehatten tech labs before. Anyway, this stuff is real goddamn advanced, and I got some unicorns working on reprogramming the brains right now… ain’t too difficult, it’s a just a lot of imaging magic and practice, you dig?”

She stopped, then added in a more-serious voice: “It seems like these things were programmed for some nasty stuff, though. After a certain date, they were going to simply open fire on anything within fifty feet. They got nasty little spiked… arrowheads, really, ain’t like any bullets I’ve ever seen. I kid you not, these things are set up in strategic enough areas this stuff would have wiped out half of Ponyville before we figured out what the hell was going on. A good damn thing you took care of that monster, Sol Seraph.”

Cowlick halted, then she cleared her throat as she stepped quickly backwards and strode around the sentry turret, pausing only to toss a wrench towards one of the engineers and order briskly: “Go back to work dissecting that thing’s motor system, I wanna know how these tick before we think about employing them. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Then she smiled, glancing towards them with a wink as she wiped absently at her vest, the emblem of several interlocked silver gears almost glinting on her flank as she said easily: “You guys don’t mind another poor earth pony loser like Scrivy tagging along, right? Except we all know I’m at least cooler than he is.”

“Oh, bite me, Cowlick.” Scrivener replied plainly, but Cowlick only laughed before she firmly checked Twilight as she felt into step with them, the violet unicorn wincing and staggering before shooting her a sour look as the group once more began to head towards the library. “Speaking of which, Luna wants to know if it’s really a good idea for you to come along. We’re taking a lot of Ponyville’s best resources with us.”

“Well, that’s what we mares are there for, just resources for you to use.” Cowlick replied in a serious voice, making Scrivener roll his eyes but Luna shake her head with a laugh. “Seriously, all you gals worry too much, and yes, Scrivy, I count you as a mare, but it’s a compliment really. Listen, I’m the best goddamn pony in Equestria at my job, but I came to Ponyville because I heard I could help people here, way more than I was helping people in Canterlot or Manehatten. And now, the best damn thing I can do to help, is to join up with these Starlit Knights and offer my expertise to the group. You gals need a tech-head. I think you gals even know you need a gear-rat like me along for the ride, and I sure as hell don’t feel safe with the idea of a clucking chicken like Chisel being the one you’re all left depending on.”

She stopped, looking meditatively up at the sky. “Yeah, sure, this ain’t what I dreamed of. But since when the hell did any of us dream of… of this, of the way the world’s turned? Equestria’s plunged down deep into darkness and I for one feel better doing every last little damn thing I can do to help, not hiding and pretending ain’t nothing I can do. There’s always something you can do. Always. And honestly, seeing you gals at work gives me a lot of hope.”

She smiled over at them, then shook her head and added in a more serious voice: “Besides, I got some ideas about how to better prepare for what’s ahead. I wanted to talk that over with you if you got a moment or two, Twilight, and I guess I should ask you too, Luna, since you’re the head of the Starlit Knights. I ain’t always tactful, but I am a professional, and I don’t wanna go using up parts reserved for other stuff. But those losers who ran away with their tails between their legs left a lot of supplies behind when they cut and jumped, and I would dearly love to put some of that stuff to good use if you gals don’t already have anything in mind for it.”

Luna nodded thoughtfully, looking at Twilight… and the unicorn shrugged a little, saying quietly: “Sure, Kilby, I’ll pass the master inventory list on to you. Some of it is already earmarked, but most of it should be available for use.”

Cowlick grinned slightly at this, saying easily: “Awesome, then. Twilight, Luna, I’ll hook you both up with the best stuff I can make, and gladly. Ain’t gonna ask you anything but the ability to call rank on Rainbow Dash every now and then.”

“I find this an acceptable, and more importantly, an entertaining request. I agree, at least until Rainbow Dash proves himself more useful.” Luna replied thoughtfully, nodding after a moment, and Cowlick stopped to pump a hoof in the air with a grunt of victory before she hurried after the others as the winged unicorn continued seriously: “But keep in mind that it shall not all be fun and games, Kilby Kwolek. I will ask much of thee… of all of thee, as both my husband and my beloved student know well.”

“Ain’t nothing I don’t already expect, Luna. When I first started doing odd jobs for you I knew from the start you’d want nothing but the best, and I was honestly always glad for the challenge. I take a lot of pride in my work, Luna, and I ain’t ever going to aim but to give you every last shred of effort and ability I got.” Cowlick replied with a wink, swishing her tangled, short mess of a blonde tail. “You got your job, and I got mine, after all.”

Luna nodded again with a smile at this sentiment, before she glanced towards Twilight as she added quietly: “We trust your judgment, Luna. And from the very first time I heard about the Starlit Knights, I’ve made sure to spend time with everypony, going over how things were going to be and not to take it personally if you give them pointers or two. Even if you’re not… tactful about it.”

“Oh silence, I have far more tact than thou credits me for, ‘tis simply that I am not like Celestia and afraid to speak my mind.” Luna retorted pompously, tilting her head upwards, and Ross giggled a little, which made Luna glance over her shoulder at him with entertainment. “Oh, what, does thou already see the truth in my words?”

“You’re very funny.” Ross said kindly, and Luna laughed despite herself, shaking her head and looking entertained as they started across the square towards the library. “I like all the ponies here. You all seem very special.”

“Believe me, you don’t know the half of it.” Cowlick replied with entertainment, and she shook her head slowly before asking mildly: “Where the hell did you gals pick this dude up again? No offense to you, new guy, but you seem a little… uh… slow.”

“Oh, sorry. I’ll walk faster.” Ross said apologetically, picking up his pace a bit, and Cowlick stared at him for a moment before she simply shook her head with a wry grin. “It’s this new place… this special place. It all seems so very nice and everything… none of the ponies are looking at us funny, even though we all must look a little funny.”

“Who’re you saying looks funny?” Cowlick asked flatly, looking moodily over as she wrinkled her nose, making the piercing in her nostril stand out all the further… and Ross smiled at her brightly, making the female sigh before she tilted her head towards Twilight and said meditatively: “Okay, so the dude is cute, I’ll give him that. Seems about as bright as Snips and Snails are but at least he’s better looking. Besides, since when is having a dumb, obedient colt for your bed-buddy a bad thing?”

Twilight winced back at this, and Cowlick grinned deviously, saying mildly: “Then again, look who I’m talking to. The only chick here who understands me is Luna, ain’t that right Luna? Well. Maybe Luna, now you’re all tied down with Scrivy, who you could have done so much better than, just so you know.”

“Thanks, Cowlick, this is why you’re my favorite butch androgynous mare.” Scrivener deadpanned, but Cowlick only grinned wider and tipped him a cheerful wink. “Also, please don’t encourage Luna. She’s a bad enough influence on everypony without your help.”

“And thou does not give Scrivener Blooms enough credit… after all, our very souls are mixed together, so half of him is me. Therefore, ‘tis only the other half of him that is relatively useless.” Luna replied easily, and Scrivy rolled his eyes as Twilight and Cowlick both laughed, and Ross tilted his head curiously. “All the same, Ross will be accompanying us when we travel to Canterlot. And before I forget, Cowlick, I must ask thee a boon: when we return from our mission, our home shall require some minor repairs. I would be most indebted to thee if thou would provide them for us… perhaps I can pay thee. I have a bad habit of collecting shiny coins and baubles from the ponies I pummel, after all.”

“Hey, don’t insult me, I’m a goddamn artist when it comes to mechanical stuff, I don’t need no pay for this.” Cowlick shook her head quickly, then she began to open her mouth before catching the look Twilight gave her, and she frowned a little, asking in a slower voice: “Something happened, huh? And it wasn’t no hissy fit.”

“There was the throwing of many heavy objects involved, however.” Luna said delicately as they came to a halt in front of the library, and the winged unicorn paused meditatively as she looked up at this mighty tree, studying it slowly before she smiled faintly. “But all the same, Cowlick, I am glad that I was the target, and not Ponyville. Better my one, easily-repaired, easily-hidden home be attacked, than my home away from home… better me, who can defend herself so well, than these ponies who despite their training and the adaptations they have made so far still fallen so short of my expectations.”

She stopped, then shook her head and smiled, murmuring softly: “But all the same, perhaps it is all for the best. It gives me more to protect… and it makes me hopeful for a future where ponies will be able to fight and protect themselves, while remembering the lessons of peace and harmony. But come, there is other work to be done: inside, let us introduce Ross to the others, and share with Cowlick the list of supplies. I am curious as to what ideas lurk in the nooks and crannies of her mind.”

“You stay out of my nooks and crannies, Luna.” Cowlick grinned slightly even as worries creased her face, looking hesitantly back and forth before she nodded a few times, falling silent as Twilight Sparkle led the group into the library, the engineer watching quietly as the others filtered in before her, then sighing and looking meditatively through the open door, mumbling: “I only hope you’re right, though… ‘cause of what I’ve learned about war so far is that no matter how you win… everybody loses.”

Then Cowlick shook her head and strode inside, shoving the library door closed behind her, gazing back and forth with an awkward smile as she asked finally: “So where’s this list of stuff I’m supposed to hot-glue together?”