• Published 8th Sep 2012
  • 2,990 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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A Pale, Coldhearted Village

Chapter Twenty Six: A Pale, Coldhearted Village

Scrivener yawned quietly, rolling his shoulders and smiling to himself, enjoying the familiar feeling of Luna’s head buried against his chest as her starry locks hummed softly against his body like a blanket of starlight… and to his back, the sensation of Twilight, who had naturally curled up against him over the night. He knew instinctively she was still in slumber, just like he could half-feel, half-see Luna’s dreams murmuring quietly through their mixed mind… before he frowned a bit as soft breath tickled against his face and he realized that the pressure at his waist was someone straddling his body, sitting on top of the blankets, and those hooves pressing lightly down against his shoulder weren’t from either Luna or Twilight.

His eyes slowly opened as he turned his head to gaze dumbly upwards… and then he winced back into his pillow at the sight of Pinkamena grinning down at him, the dull-pink earth pony’s mane falling half-over her face like a curtain, red-rimmed eyes shining in the semi-darkness with entertainment. “Hi.”

For a few long moments, Scrivener only stared up at her dumbly as Luna grimaced in her sleep and yawned a little, curling herself a bit closer… and then Pinkamena sat back a bit and slowly drew her eyes over them, settling herself a bit firmer into position as she cocked her head and asked kindly: “Did you have nightmares, Scrivy? I suppose for you nightmares must be good dreams and good dreams are the worse ones, just like me. But you and I are more than a little strange, more than a little damned, isn’t that right? Although personally… that’s just the way I like it, myself.”

Scrivener blinked dumbly at her… and then he tilted his head as she brushed her mane back and he realized the Element of Laughter was hanging around her neck, as well as a silver locket. Pinkamena only continued to grin down at him, obviously waiting for some kind of response, and then Scrivy finally sighed a little as he grabbed Luna’s head and shook her a few times, mumbling: “Pinkamena, how did you even get inside?”

“Easy, I walked in. You think anypony’s going to stop me from doing what I want?” Pinkamena gave a derisive snort before she reached down and slapped Scrivener Blooms firmly, the male wincing to the side in surprise more than pain… but Luna’s eyes immediately snapped open as she felt the blow, snarling and leaping to her hooves as her horn glowed sharply, pointed at the intruder’s neck, before she blinked in surprise as Pinkamena only laughed quietly, hooves raised as if in mocking surrender, head tilted back as Luna’s horn almost tickled the Element of Laughter and the little bit of exposed throat above this. “Not a morning pony, huh?”

“Just be glad the nasty little ponies were in a fit state to be seen.” muttered another voice, and Luna and Scrivener Blooms both glanced towards the far corner of the room, where Discombobulation was calmly leaning, his arms crossed and a grouchy look on his face. “Scrivener Blooms, why are you such a physical creature? Why are you so greedy? Why can’t you be happy with what you have? Shouldn’t you just let God into your life and submit yourself to your husband’s desires? The very fact there’s a half-demon in your bed clearly shows you’re doing something wrong.”

Pinkamena snorted in entertainment at this, licking her lips as she looked over her shoulder at the Draconequus and said mockingly: “Then maybe you should join us, Bob, and I’ll show you how the devils stay hot in Helheim.”

Discombobulation rolled his eyes at this, then he stepped forwards as he held up a hand, a large, square box appearing above it as he flicked his eagle talon, and a tight, dirty uniform appeared a moment later over his body as he said in a deep rumble, even as glared at them sarcastically: “Excuse me, but did you order the large sausage?”

Pinkamena opened her mouth with a wide grin… and then Luna leaned forwards and hissed: “If either of thee awaken my daughter before dawn’s light kisses the horizon I shall bash thee both through the mountains!”

Both Pinkamena and Discombobulation looked at Luna for a few moments as static sizzled through her starry mane, her eye twitching as she glared furiously at them… and then Discombobulation carefully edged backwards until he was pressing against the wall, clearing his throat and mumbling: “Wrong house.”

With that, the wall rippled and he vanished through it, and Pinkamena winced a little when Luna turned her glare to her, muttering moodily: “Fine, fine, Nightmare Moon.”

She crawled off the bedding and made her way grouchily towards the door, casting a glance at Scarlet Sage as she passed… and even her eyes seemed to soften at the sight of the curled-up Pegasus filly, laying on her little bed with her doll clutched against her body, blankets strewn over her and skeletal Sammy curled up half-over the child protectively, the blue flames burning low in the creature’s sockets as it snoozed. Then Pinkamena only grumbled to herself as she exited through the ajar door, and Scrivy rolled his eyes before he kissed Luna’s forehead as she mumbled under her breath, and carefully made his way to the door after the gray-pink pony, knowing Luna would follow once a little more awake.

He yawned a bit, then shook his head out quickly as he glanced up and smiled slightly: Pinkamena was waiting grouchily by the doors leading out of the building, watching him as he approached. “Your wife is a little overprotective of that filly you’ve kidnapped.”

“We found her being led off by a Phooka, for one thing, Pinkamena. Which you already know.” Scrivener said mildly, and then he paused and stepped past her, glancing out the window towards the dark sky as he murmured: “The nights here are long and cold. How did you sleep?”

There was no answer… and then Scrivy winced when Pinkamena bit firmly into his shoulder, twitching back in pain as she growled for a moment before drawing back as suddenly as she’d bitten him, and the male stared at her with horror before she grinned widely at him, her sharp teeth glinting. “Not quite the same as Luna. Very interesting.”

“What… what the hell!” Scrivy rubbed for a moment at his shoulder, then glared at the dull-pink pony, but she only shrugged and licked her lips slowly as she leaned forwards him with a wide, half-mocking grin. “Why do you keep doing that?”

“Luna invited me to. And I like to know how things taste.” Pinkamena opened her mouth slowly, sliding her tongue gently along her sharp teeth, her red-rimmed blue eyes gleaming dangerously. “It can answer a lot of questions about ponies and I have so, so, so many questions about you and Luna…”

Pinkamena’s eyes half-lidded as she slunk slowly forwards, Scrivener leaning slowly back against the door with a wince as she pressed almost nose-to-nose with him, then laughed quietly as she slipped past, lips almost brushing together as she whispered quietly in his ear: “Tell me, Scrivener Blooms. Are you Luna’s better half? Or is she the better one, and you’re just hiding the fact that on the inside, you might be as twisted as me…”

She grinned, leaning back, stroking her hooves almost tantalizingly down the male’s breast… and then Luna cleared her throat loudly as she approached in her heavy, fluffy cloak, and Pinkamena shot her a sour look as the winged unicorn said clearly: “That is quite enough of that, Pinkamena, I will not have thee molesting my husband any further. Thou must ask politely before thou plays with my favorite possession.”

“Thank you, L… hey!” Scrivy shot her a glare, and Pinkamena threw her head back and laughed before she turned and shoved the door open with a wide grin, as Scrivener grumbled under his breath but Luna only smiled slightly at him. “Horses of Heaven I think I hate you both. And everything else, too. It’s too early for this.”

“There’s no such thing as too early or too late when you never sleep.” Pinkamena said moodily, glancing up towards the gray, dark skies overhead as she added distastefully: “Five in the morning. What’s to do around here? What can we set on fire?”

“Well, there’s a whole lick of work that I want to get started on as soon as possible.” grumbled another voice, and the ponies glanced up curiously to see Cowlick resting beside Ross: the unicorn looked as cheerful as ever, but Cowlick was bundled up in a heavy jacket and scarf, sitting back against a wagon at the side of the road and a cup of coffee held between her hooves. She sipped from this slowly, then added disgustedly: “Unicorns came last night and busted the axle on one of the wagons, pissed me right off, going to be a pain to repair. Walking around town this morning made me even angrier. Went to bed early so I could be sure to get up, thought I’d be out and about before all the unicorns were, but lo and behold there’s a whole bunch of them milling around already. What the hell do ponies do around here, Scrivy?”

Luna and Pinkamena both glanced curiously towards the earth pony, even as he felt Luna tickling through his mind, searching out memories, and the male smiled as he answered quietly: “Mining and greenhouse agriculture. The earth ponies do most of the rough work, although there were always a good few Pegasus as well. Usually a higher rank or two than the earth ponies but… ‘shorn-wings’ are treated with as much disdain as ‘slave-hoofs’ around here.

“The mines were always the big industry. Deep excavation, there’s a lot of gemstones, silver, other precious metals to the north. Bedrock Valley is only a klick or two away: it used to be a natural tunnel system they mined out almost completely, but because of the natural heat that comes from underground magma floes, the unicorns used magic to install some sun-mimicking lanterns in the enlarged caves and started growing food. Winterberry crops, hardy things like that. We never… had many sweets here.”

Scrivy halted, glancing down, and then he looked up and continued quietly: “I imagine it’s much the same now, if not bigger. It’s why North Neigh may look dilapidated, but the unicorns are still obviously keeping their bellies full. Bramblethorn… used to have access to Bedrock Valley… in fact, for the business, he had a small plot in the cave systems rented out where he could grow more expensive plants and flowers for the higher-class customers, while everything else we grew in greenhouses that used to be in the southwest. Some of the ‘lower class’ food supply is grown in Bedrock Valley too, but… back then, it was mostly roots and mushrooms. I doubt it’s much better now.”

Cowlick grimaced and shook her head slowly, saying disgustedly: “God. I don’t get it, Scrivy. This place seems more and more like it belongs to a unicorn-worshipping cult than Equestria. How could they be so backwards-ass after all this time?”

“They’re isolated, they grow their own food, most of their contact with other communities was with places like Silver Hoof and Snow Saddle… and even for a big city, Snow Saddle is still a little sunken into the old ways.” Scrivener replied with a shrug, smiling faintly. “The unicorns have always had power, and there’s never been any reason for them to change, any challenge to them. They hold all the cards, control all the resources, own all the important property here in North Neigh, and earth ponies are still essentially slaves, whatever the law might say different… but usually, Canterlot and the Royal Courts don’t stretch this far, and I don’t think any of us can say there’s never been a little elitism even there.”

“Yeah, well, that’s different. That’s unicorns being snobs, which I’m okay with. I can be a jerk too about being better than everypony else at my designs and stuff.” Cowlick shook her head with a grimace, saying moodily: “But I couldn’t even get a damn coffee. And they called poor Ross a damn splinter-horn and threatened to beat him just because his head’s a little silly, even if they at least let him into the shop. These guys are barbarians and we should burn the whole town down.”

“Suddenly I like you a lot more.” Pinkamena remarked dryly, and then she glanced at Luna as the winged unicorn grunted in agreement. “Can we kill some unicorns now? I’d really enjoy that. I think these guys even piss sissy off.”

Cowlick glanced with sudden sympathy towards Pinkamena, as Luna glanced towards the dull-pink pony musingly before she muttered: “No, we shall not glory in destruction. But we shall take a walk into this town, see what there is to see. Cowlick, where was this coffee shop?”

“Just keep going straight, you’ll hit it eventually. Careful, though… half the earth ponies I came across have been brainwashed by all their time cooped up in this crazy place, seem to think that their natural place really is beneath the unicorns.” She halted, then grimaced and shook her head, looking down and adding in a mutter: “What really scared me, though? I thought… I thought some of them still had blank-flanks even though they were adults. That’s… not possible, right?”

But Scrivener only shook his head slowly, and Luna smiled faintly, sadly, towards Cowlick, as she said quietly: “In a natural world, nay… but the earth ponies are only permitted to serve the unicorns here. If thou had never been permitted to explore thyself, to engage in what drew thy attention…”

Cowlick grimaced in disgust at this and looked silently down as Ross gazed over the group, and then the unicorn said softly: “These ponies don’t think right.”

Luna smiled faintly at this, nodding slowly and grimly, and then she took the lead, and Scrivener fell into pace beside her as Pinkamena trailed behind them and moodily looked back and forth, as the winged unicorn said quietly: “North Neigh… this place would be better named desolation, or purgatory… or perhaps even Hell.”

“It’s cold, dark, miserable, and ponies suffer beneath the hooves of self-proclaimed superiors… ain’t a bad comparison.” Pinkamena agreed distastefully, and Scrivener grunted in agreement as he kept his head down, a faint, cold breeze whispering past their bodies. “At least I believe there should always be enough suffering to go around…”

They walked onwards in silence for roughly ten minutes, passing earth ponies that were shoveling snow and spreading salt over the road. Others were dragging covered, rickety wagons, keeping their heads lowered, bands glinting quietly around their forelimbs and tags hanging from their ears like they were domesticated cattle… and Luna gritted her teeth in anger at this as they approached a well-lit, octagonal coffee shop.

Two Pegasi stood outside this, one of them smoking, both dressed in lightweight armor… and when the three approached, the smoker stepped forwards and held up a hoof, saying disgustedly: “Don’t think so. There’s a law against letting slave-hoofs on the premises that applies to everyone in this town, even fairytale monsters.”

His companion sniggered as Luna growled… and then Pinkamena stepped forwards and slammed her hoof into the laughing officer’s face, sending him crashing back against the wide, rectangular window hard enough to crack it before he fell in a stunned, prone heap, and the smoking Pegasus stumbled backwards in shock as Pinkamena only grinned at him callously. “What about now?”

The Pegasus swallowed thickly… and then he yelped when Luna’s horn glowed and the door to the shop flew open, smashing into his face with enough force to send his cigarette mashing back into his own jaws. He coughed and gagged violently as the trio made their way inside, Luna letting the door swing closed behind her before she looked slowly back and forth over the rustic interior: round wooden tables, comfy little chairs, tiled floor and earth ponies in uniform behind the counter that were staring in shock, wearing bands around their forelimbs and tags on their breast.

The trio calmly approached the counter even as all eyes present glared at them: Pegasus soldiers that nonetheless didn’t seem overanxious to press their luck, and a few furious-looking unicorns in regal, fur-lined coats, Luna leaning forwards before she paused, then smiled at Scrivener Blooms, saying kindly: “Thou should pick for me, husband. Thou art so much the better than me, after all.”

Scrivener looked amusedly back at Luna, feeling a smile quirk at his mouth even as a unicorn leapt to his feet and stormed out of the store, before one of the earth ponies behind the counter mumbled: “We… we can’t… I mean…”

“What’s going on here?” shouted a voice, and a Pegasus stormed out of the back of the store… then he snarled at the sight of Scrivener Blooms, leaning forwards and saying disgustedly: “Oh, so the rumors are true! You’re back… the runaway slave-hoof.”

Scrivener frowned, looking across at the Pegasus as his eyes flicked to his name tag… and then he gritted his teeth as he compared it to the ones the earth ponies were wearing: while the Pegasus’s name was actually written across the tag with the title of manager, the only thing written on the golden tags on the earth pony’s breasts was: ‘Servant.’ “I know you. You and your friends used to beat me up when I was a foal.”

The Pegasus opened his mouth… and then Scrivener Blooms rose a hoof and brought it down on the solid oak counter, sending cracks spiraling through the wood with the force of the blow, and the Pegasus went from snarling to staring down at this as Scrivy asked mildly: “Up for a rematch?”

On the other side of the counter, the manager of the coffee shop looked up, gritting his teeth, meeting Scrivy’s calm, cold gaze… and then he cursed under his breath in disgust, turning around and muttering as he stormed into the back. Scrivener smiled a little at this as Luna wrapped a foreleg around him and visibly burned with pride, her head thrown back, her eyes glowing as the earth pony said calmly: “Two double-double coffees, and… Pinkamena, I’m guessing you like yours black?”

“As my heart, just not nearly as cold.” Pinkamena replied, and then she turned around and strode towards the nearest table, grinning at the unicorn who was sitting there, and the look on the mare’s face went from baleful to terrified as the earth pony said kindly: “Get lost.”

“We won’t be in-intimidated by…” the unicorn began… and then Pinkamena growled in her throat as she leaned forwards, her eyes flashing, and the mare let out a short screech, then scrambled quickly out of her chair and away from the dull pink earth pony as Pinkamena threw her head back and laughed.

She spun the chair around, then sat on it and draped her forelegs across the back, ignoring the crowd that was staring at her with anger and frustration as Scrivener rolled his eyes but Luna only grinned, her starry mane sparking as she turned around and said clearly: “Heed my words, unicorns and Pegasi, and heed them well. I am here to investigate Silver Hoof and halt whatever evil machinations I may find… but I do not have any plans to be anything less than troublesome to all thee and thine. I am Luna… I am Nightmare Moon. And as thou and thine have no respect for anything but thy own selves, I have lost the little patience I once possessed and have instead decided that while yes, I must save thee… I can also bully thee, harass thee, and generally make all of thee utterly miserable. Thou consider thyselves masters and tyrants over others? Nay, I shall teach thee the true meaning of that word, and perhaps in suffering thou will all find some common ground and get along… but I doubt it. Mostly, my goal is simply to make all of thee as miserable as possible until all thee and thine simply stay out of my way, and away from my encampment, my soldiers, and my friends.”

There were mutters of resentment as several more ponies stood up and left, even as the earth ponies behind the counter nervously passed up several cups of coffee… but before Scrivy could even reach for them, Luna flicked her horn and picked them up with telekinesis, saying kindly: “Thou hast my thanks for thy generous… gift. Come, Scrivener, Pinkamena. Let’s go somewhere more hospitable.”

They left, and a unicorn shouted some vulgarity at them through the window, but the trio simply ignored this as they made their way out into the streets and back down the road to the apartments. It looked as if the Starlit Knights were all beginning to awaken despite how early it still was, although that could certainly in part be the fault of Cowlick: she already had the minotaurs at work on one of the wagons, and other ponies were moving in and out of the second apartment building, Ross curiously wandering around it and likely making measurements of some kind or another for the engineer.

The trio instead made their way to Pinkamena’s campsite… and Luna passed their coffee out, then flicked her horn, and blue flames burst into life in the firepit Pinkamena had dug in front of her tent, the dull gray pony grunting as she pulled the top off her coffee and then took a deep guzzle of it, steam and heat rising around her features but not seeming to bother her before she lowered the cup… then said abruptly: “Lemon Drop.”

The two ponies looked at her curiously… and Pinkamena shrugged a bit, continuing in a moody voice: “Sissy… always called me Lemon Drop. Said it was candy, but sour candy. Said it was like me… bitter and almost painful on the outside but then you get to the inside and there’s a little soft mush and sugar or something. Said that she knew that no matter how spiky something is on the outside, I taught her that most of us… well, we’re all a little… gooshy on the inside. Don’t think she meant guts, either. I wish she did… oh, no I don’t. I’m glad I never made her anything like me…”

She stopped, then shook her head with a sigh, looking up at the dark, cloudy sky overhead. “You feel it, right, Luna? Like reality’s just a curtain you could brush aside, if you really wanted to… if you really tried. But who knows what you’d see staring back at you if you did? Sissy was bad enough: I don’t want to think about what else might be lurking just past the fabric of thin air. Last night, though… last night was the first night I slept without nightmares, all the same. Sissy always had those fits of energy, and I always had… such freakish, awful dreams. I see things in the shadows I know aren’t there… I see you, Nightmare Moon, sitting there, with your glowing eyes and your black coat… I see beneath the skin of ponies. It drives me absolutely insane.”

Pinkamena halted again, then she reached up and rubbed at her face with disgust. “Why am I telling you two this? I don’t even know… I just know I want to talk and you two seem to always listen. Not that I know why you care or why you bother… but still, I like you both. Maybe Twilight, too… but she’s not yet as dark as us, oh no… except she is on her way. Same with that little girl of yours, she’s tinged, tainted, shadowed… but hey, don’t look at me like that. She’s not broken, like me… she’s… polished, by the darkness. She’s strong enough to handle it. I was never strong enough to handle it… to handle being alone, to handle being in pain. God I hate you two and I like you two. I want to make out with you both and stab you and lick the wounds and cry and bite and claw and have you both beat me senseless while I laugh and bask in the glory of it. Do you think you could break me, Nightmare Moon? I’d welcome it. Break me mentally, break me physically, break me into pieces and put me back together, just like one of my models… because the idiot who made me put all my parts in the wrong place, put all my emotions in the wrong order.”

Luna and Scrivener Blooms both gazed quietly at the gray-pink pony as she grimaced a little in disgust, rubbing slowly at her face… and then she sighed and shook her head slowly, saying distastefully: “Don’t pity me. I’ll come over there and break your faces.” She stopped, then moodily reached up and touched the Element of Laughter, adding quietly: “Sissy said to thank you, though. That’s… that’s from her, not from me, you understand me? I obviously don’t care but… thanks for helping me along. Even if I know it’s just because you don’t want me murdering everyone in the encampment and fighting by your side.”

“No, obviously it was because we really want to sleep with you.” Scrivener Blooms replied dryly, and Luna snorted in entertainment as Pinkamena looked across at them flatly. “You know us. Attracted to things that will end horribly.”

“Well you only ever had to ask.” Pinkamena replied in a saccharine voice, and then she threw her cup of half-full coffee at Scrivy, the earth pony wincing and scrambling out of the way to avoid being splattered with the still hot liquid as he fumbled to balance his own cup, Luna glaring across at Pinkamena. “Go back to your concubine.”

“The royal palaces used to have concubines, both male and female. Those were good days.” Luna mused, and both Pinkamena and Scrivener Blooms stared at her for a moment before she straightened and snorted in amusement. “To do the work of kings and Barons was not always disagreeable, there were always benefits to a stay inside a castle, however stuffy. But come, Scrivener Blooms. Even Nightmare Moon tires of this endless, drudging night now… it is not beautiful, it is cloudy and dark and leering. Let us lower the moon, and hope Celestia is eager to bring about the day.”

Scrivy nodded, and Pinkamena sat back, watching curiously as the two put their coffee aside before they took a slow breath, their eyes closing, leaning forwards slightly as Luna’s horn began to glow… and then they both arched their backs slowly, eyes remaining closed, and there was an almost tangible rumble as behind the veil of clouds, the moon descended, and the air around them grew darker… and in the moment of pure darkness that followed, past the moon setting, before the sun rose, the stars obscured by the clouds, Luna and Scrivener both opened their eyes and gazed around in shock at what they saw.

Pales surrounded them: they did not glow, but their bodies were lustrous, standing like white cutouts against the backing of almost-complete blackness, many of them still, others pacing restlessly, frost glimmering around their bodies. They were of all shape and size, and many of them seemed strangely confused, as if lost, as if they did not know where they were, or perhaps even who they were… and the moment the clouds above began to lighten with dawn’s first rays, their flickering forms vanished, invisible or maybe gone, hidden by the coming day.

The two looked towards Pinkamena… but she only grinned and said softly: “Like I said. Reality is thin here… now maybe this is just me, but I don’t think that’s natural in any sense of the word. Something seems to be drawing the dead out of their graves… and I’m pleased as punch to be able to say it’s not me, since I’m usually the one who puts them in there in the first place.”

Scrivener grimaced a bit as he looked towards Luna, and she shook her head slowly, murmuring: “Aye, perhaps thou art correct, Pinkamena. Either way, this will require thought and investigation… but come, Scrivener Blooms. Let us… see what else there is to be done here, as we muse upon this subject. And let us try again to write a short letter to Celestia… gladdened as I am to see the sun rise, her continued silence worries me.”

Scrivy nodded after a moment, and Pinkamena rose a hoof to their backs as she called half-mockingly: “Don’t forget about me, Nightmare Moon… I’m looking forwards to when I can sneak another taste.”

“Twisted creature.” Luna muttered, but it was not without a wry grin as they strode towards the apartments, the female shaking her head slowly as her cloak fluttered around her, starry mane twisting quietly backwards as Scrivener smiled amusedly. “And yet all the same, I find that I enjoy her presence, and I know thou takes a very twisted pleasure as well. Shall we invite her to our bed, Scrivener Blooms? ‘Twould be hilarious to see the look on Twilight’s face, although I’m sure that instead of debauchery we would all simply engage in smacking one another and taunting Twilight Sparkle.”

“Maybe for your birthday, then.” Scrivener said dryly, and Luna snorted laughter at this as they pushed through the doors and headed back towards their room, before they both smiled when they found Scarlet Sage awake and lovingly stroking the mane of her doll. “Good morning, Scarlet.”

“Good morning, Scrivy, Luna… Mom and Dad.” Scarlet Sage smiled up at them after a moment, and then she yawned a little as she sat up shaking her head briskly as Twilight gazed up from where she was laying on the bedding, already with a book out in front of her and smiling softly across at them. “Kilby Kwolek was by already, she woke us up and said they were going to be setting up a breakfast tent soon.”

“Dratted infernal Cowlick.” Luna grumbled, and Scrivener nudged her gently, making her huff before she walked over to the bedding and flopped down on it, saying grouchily: “Scrivener Blooms, fetch thy things and prepare a letter.”

Scrivy only shook his head with entertainment as he headed to his satchel bag, and Luna grumbled and childishly flailed at the blankets, her cloak fluttering around her as Scarlet Sage giggled a little. The sapphire winged unicorn settled slowly as Scrivy laid out parchment and an ink well, quill in hoof as Sammy scampered out from beneath their scattered gear to leap onto the male’s shoulder and perch himself precariously, peering down as Scrivener glanced up only once before starting to write.

The earth pony composed a short, simple letter as Luna lay with her eyes closed, sending thoughts and images and emotions to the male, his own mind responding in quiet kind as he glanced up at her tenderly every so often. Scarlet Sage gazed between her adopted parents with adoration as Twilight half-read her book, half-studied them as well, sensing the connection between them even in the silence… and then Scrivy rolled the letter up and tossed it into the air, and Sammy chirped as he leapt upwards and breathed a swathe of blue flame over it, turning it to ashes that sailed quickly towards the window before the skeletal pseudodragon landed neatly, and pranced around in a circle, making Scrivy and Scarlet Sage laugh as Twilight smiled and nudged Luna, who only grumbled, eyes still closed. “Circus tricks. Apparently ‘tis not so adorable when I do such feats, though.”

“Well, Luna, you’re plenty spry, but you’re a little bigger than Sammy. So when you use me as a springboard it’s less funny to me.” Scrivy replied meditatively. Luna only looked up moodily at this, however, before sighing when the earth pony shrugged. “Anyway, hopefully we’ll get a response shortly. I’m worried myself… but this could be anything from letter-tampering to just… bad luck.”

“Or Celestia’s evil at work.” Luna said immediately, raising her head, but Scrivener only smiled amusedly and glanced up towards the ceiling as Scarlet Sage and Twilight looked at the sapphire winged unicorn with entertainment. “Underestimate not my sister, I warn thee all. She is capable of terrible schemes.”

“Luna, the harder you work to deny you like Celestia, the more obvious it becomes.” Scrivy said mildly… and then Luna glared at him, her horn glowing as her cloak flapped upwards and pulled off her body before launching itself at the earth pony, smacking him firmly in the face and knocking him backwards as Scarlet Sage covered her mouth and giggled, and Scrivener grumbled as he sat back up, looking flatly across at Luna as she glared at him challengingly.

Then they both glanced to the side in surprise as Twilight twitched, before she leaned forwards with a wince of pain… and a moment later, blinked stupidly as she rose her head, her horn glowing brightly as she said dumbly: “I… well, that’s weird, but… okay.”

Her eyes flashed, then glowed faintly, strangely, as she gazed kindly towards Luna… who immediately shoved herself to her hooves, scampering backwards and shouting as she pointed at Twilight Sparkle. “Celestia thou dirty, filthy, evil creature, I command that thee immediately vacates Twilight Sparkle’s body!”

“Sister, stop it, I can’t send letters to you so using my bond through Twilight is the next best thing, uncomfortable as it is.” Celestia’s voice spoke eerily from Twilight’s mouth, the violet winged unicorn smiling placidly as Scrivener’s jaw dropped and Scarlet Sage gasped in surprise, while Luna only continued to look ruffled and grouchy. “Somepony or something is working to block all my letters to you… and sister, I… I wanted to thank you, for being so clear and kind in what you shared with me. It meant a world to see you trusting in me so deeply…”

Twilight glanced down, softening, reflecting Celestia’s emotions, and then she gazed back up with a soft smile. “Come though, I will not permit myself to put too much strain on Twilight Sparkle, and this is more difficult than I thought it would be for myself. We are bonded, we share a pact, but the connection is only so strong, especially at this distance. I must be brief. But I have made several interesting discoveries I look eagerly forwards to sharing with you, about our past, about… histories that I barely believe. And I have found the thing we have been searching for these last few years, Luna… the location of the Black Baroque, where Ekleíp claims to be stationed, the fortress that stands as a terrible link between our Midgard and Niflheim. But be careful… you know there are other tunnels that burrow beneath Equestria, that stretch down into terrible darkness, and other things that I can only hope still sleep, still lay dormant. And if you need me… call. Call, and I shall hurry to your side. No distance is too great.”

“Thou hast my thanks, beloved sister… but think not that I shall allow thee to sweep up my glory, either.” Luna smiled slightly, her eyes soft as she said quietly: “But I have a question for thee, if thou can linger a moment… this place, North Neigh. We have seen signs that… reality here is… ‘thin,’ there is no better word for it than this. What would cause this?”

Twilight looked down thoughtfully, her eyes glowing with Celestia’s knowledge… and then she looked up, saying in the ivory equine’s voice: “As you know… the Mountains are a terrible place, cursed, dark, full of evil… full of wrongness. The Black Baroque is in the Gray Mountains… I shall tell you more when we are able to meet truly face-to-face, however, because on this adventure… I won’t have my little sister running off alone without me.”

She smiled softly… and Luna laughed and shook her head, saying quietly: “Much like old times… aye, I suppose even I can find no fault in it. Or rather, wish not to point out the fact that there are a thousand faults in thou leaving Canterlot on an epic quest alongside me and mine, Queen Celestia… and instead only focus on how right it shall feel to conquer our enemies side-by-side once more. Aye, I like this.”

Luna paused meditatively, then looked up quietly as Celestia gazed lovingly back through Twilight’s eyes. Celestia hesitated for a moment… then said softly: “But as to your question… I do not believe it is because reality has simply… always been corrupted, almost different, there. I believe it is because… whatever is blocking my letters, whatever has helped destroy Silver Hoof and meddled with the darkness and the Black Baroque, it is purposefully straining our reality. It seeks something, something to do with Ekleíp… you must be careful. You must be wary.”

“I shall be both, sister.” Luna bowed her head quietly forwards… and Celestia smiled through Twilight’s mouth for a moment before the violet winged unicorn clenched her teeth and shuddered, rearing back and cursing in pain as the glow faded from her eyes and horns before she slumped forwards, rasping for breath as Luna stepped towards her and asked quietly: “Art thou alright?”

“I just… I heard Celestia’s voice in my head, asking me if she could speak to you for a moment, and then… I… it felt like she wore me like a suit of clothes.” Twilight mumbled, reaching up and resting a hoof against her head as she grimaced, and then she smiled awkwardly as the three ponies gazed worriedly at her and Sammy chirped nervously. “It’s… it’s okay. I’m okay, I am. I just… didn’t expect that. I feel… stretched.”

Luna snorted in entertainment at this, giving an entertained look over to Scrivener Blooms before she opened her mouth… but then Scrivy looked pointedly towards Scarlet Sage, and Luna sulked and refrained from making any further comments. Instead, she turned her eyes back to Twilight Sparkle, who was rubbing slowly at her eyes before she finally looked up with a small laugh. “Sorry. I just… I feel drained now.”

“Aye, ‘tis understandable. Thou were perverted by Celestia.” Luna said mildly, and Twilight sighed and rolled her eyes before Luna softened and gazed towards Scrivener Blooms, saying quietly: “Come, let us go find if food is prepared. Twilight, Scarlet Sage, stay and rest… we shall return anon.”

They both smiled up at the two at this as Scrivy climbed to his hooves and strode over to Luna, the two making their way out. They didn’t speak much, but their thoughts rolled together, their emotions mixed and mingled, as they went about the simple task of finding a meal for their friend and their filly.

When they returned, they found Twilight helping Scarlet Sage write down a few notes… and Luna and Scrivy laid down on Scarlet Sage’s other side as they passed her the small plate of food they had assembled, of a few apples and dried goods. Their supplies would need to be replenished, but Luna didn’t foresee this being a problem: either North Neigh would cooperate with them, or they would simply take the supplies they needed by intimidation, guile, and cunning.

They passed a few hours in comfort, Twilight recovering her strength quickly after the meal, before Cowlick hesitantly knocked at their door and announced a unicorn messenger was here with a summons for Luna alone to City Hall… and Luna had grinned, then said calmly: “Excellent. Scrivener Blooms, Twilight Sparkle, let us make all required haste, and Scrivy, thou shalt once more take the lead. Cowlick, where is Fluttershy?”

“Already on the way, and Ross will stick around, too. He’s a friendly guy.” Cowlick smiled slightly as Luna threw on her cloak and Twilight slipped into her own, as Scrivener grimaced a bit and adjusted his glasses on his muzzle. “You sure ticking these guys off is the best way to go about things? Okay, yes. I got a big silly-filly giggle out of Pinkamena gloating about the coffee shop, but all the same. Ain’t we supposed to save ‘em?”

“We are here to save the elements of this town worth saving, Cowlick. The wretched ones, however, are better filtered out.” Luna grimaced a little, then she leaned down and kissed Scarlet Sage’s forehead, gazing at the young filly as she said gently: “Be good for me, young one. And do me a favor and continue working upon thy notes.”

“I will, Mom. You and Dad and Twilight take care, okay?” she gazed up at them softly, and Luna smiled as she stroked the filly’s cheek tenderly as Scrivener looked affectionately down at the filly, his own heart bolstering with courage.

Cowlick smiled and gestured for them to go on, and the trio made their way out of the single room apartment they had claimed and out of the building, stepping onto the road as Luna grinned and weaved quickly to Scrivener’s right so that he stood between her and Twilight… and the unicorn messenger waiting on the road groaned and glared at them as they approached, leaning forwards and snapping: “Champion Luna only! What’s not clear about that?”

Luna glared at him, her mane sparking as it twisted backwards, and the messenger immediately winced and scuttled around in a circle, lowering his head and mumbling to himself as Luna said distastefully: “Far better. Lead on to thy master’s palace. I am eager to speak with the mayor.”

It was somehow no surprise to find that despite the dilapidated look of many of the buildings, town hall was majestic: ancient, well-worn steps of stone led up past enormous statues of armored, rearing unicorns with a shield on one foreleg, and swords sheathed over their backs. The steps then curled around a dais upon which stood a massive, majestic statue of a winged unicorn in full battle regalia, an emotionless helm shrouding her features… and Luna smiled bitterly at the sight of it. The ancient, runic inscription declared it was Goddess Sol… but that was only a name for the Celestia who had been… instead of the Celestia that now was.

At the top of the sets, to the back of the statue of Sol, was a pair of enormous metal doors guarded by Pegasus in full armor who glared at the three as the messenger stepped aside and gestured rudely at the doors… and Luna opened them with only a glance, smiling coldly as she glanced to Scrivener Blooms. The earth pony strode boldly forwards, the first to step over the threshold with the winged unicorns to either side of him, entering into the enormous lobby beyond and immediately receiving snarls and stares of absolute disbelief from the unicorns clustered around the open, spacious front.

The Pegasus soldiers around the room seemed uncertain of what to do, looking back and forth as the doors slammed behind the three… and then there was a shout of rage from above, and the three looked up, Scrivener’s face darkening immediately as Bramblethorn stormed down a curling set of stairs in ceremonial robes, several unicorns hurrying after him with winces as he shouted: “No, no, no! You worthless little mudwalking stain upon my name and honor, now you dare pervert these halls with your presence? The splinter-horn ground-kissers are bad enough but it has been a century since these halls were tarnished with the presence of an earth pony!”

“Except at night, when the earth ponies clean up all the messes the unicorns make because they’re too stupid to do it themselves. Just like back at the shop, right, Dad?” Scrivener retorted, his voice acerbic but his eyes enraged as he stepped forwards, Luna feeling raw fury pulsing through her body as Twilight gritted her teeth.

Bramblethorn looked furious at this, stomping forwards, the two snarling at each other, their eyes glaring, their bodies tensing as Bramblethorn’s horn glowed and Scrivener’s chest heaved with his breaths, his eyes almost glowing… and then the unicorn leaned forwards and said in a disgusted voice: “I wish I had disowned you sooner. In fact, I wish you had never been born. As a matter of fact, I wish your mother had died before I had a chance to meet her, so that there’s no way you ever could have come into this world, to me or to another. You are a blot. A stain. A shame. A failure. You’re a tapeworm that’s burrowed into the gut of that whore you call a wife and-”

Scrivener lunged forwards and punched Bramblethorn across the face, and immediately Bramblethorn snarled like an animal, his eyes blazing, more infuriated than hurt as he slammed his own hooves back against Scrivy and the two broke into a savage, senseless, unskilled brawl, Luna shouting and yelling encouragement and horrible curses as Twilight winced and watched with shock, the unicorns on the other side yelling and shouting at Bramblethorn with mixed pride and recriminations.

They dragged each other down, neither thinking in the haze of fury, neither fighting with any skill, just trying to hurt each other as much as possible: Scrivener’s glasses were shattered, pieces of glass dotting his muzzle, and one of Bramblethorn’s eyes had swollen shut… before the unicorn gagged when a lucky blow caught him in the throat, falling backwards, Scrivy shoving him down, snarling as he felt darkness writhing inside him, bringing a hoof back… and Luna winced, going from furious to pale in a moment as she leapt forwards and seized his foreleg, and Twilight quickly took it as a sign to jump in as well, shocked as Scrivy tried to shake Luna off, the male shouting: “No, no, I’ll kill him! You hear me, Bramblethorn, I’ll kill you!”

“You don’t have the guts, slave-hoof!” Bramblethorn howled back, shoving himself up to his hooves… and unicorns winced and grabbed the Chancellor now, hauling him back: restraining him even as he shook violently back and forth, father and son snarling at one-another, blood dripping from Bramblethorn’s nose and a nasty cut above his swollen eye, Scrivener’s lip split, the scarred side of his face scraped, broken glass glinting here and there where it was embedded in his features. “Take your hookers and-”

“What the hell is going on here?” shouted a voice, and all eyes turned upwards, Bramblethorn snarling and shaking the other unicorns off as Commander Scutum strode down the steps, the mayor staring down with horror from the top of the stairs before she winced and scuttled quickly away as Scutum strode fearlessly towards the crowd, looking back and forth with a curse. “What is this? What the hell is this?”

“The slave-hoof is inside our town hall! The slave hoof started the fight, him and his pieces of meat!” Bramblethorn snapped, and he pointed furiously at Scrivener. “Arrest him, I order you!”

Scutum shot a dark look at Scrivener Blooms when he began to open his mouth, and the unicorn said disgustedly: “No. Do not speak, slave-hoof, I have not addressed you and I will have order.” Then, before Scrivener could talk anyway or Luna could snap, Scutum surprisingly rounded on Bramblethorn, leaning forwards and saying in a deadly, cold voice: “And you do not give me orders, Chancellor. You never, ever give me orders. Ever. So here’s my suggestion: even though a slave hoof who assaults a unicorn faces life imprisonment, which is just a nice little term for ‘slow death in the prison caves,’ we did invite him here. And he is a representative of Queen Celestia, no less, whatever the hell else his blood status. Which means that if we do punish him, I do not doubt Queen Celestia herself will come looking to see what’s happened. We have enough problems to deal with: therefore, I’m going to judge this was a mutual assault. Why don’t you go back to work, Bramblethorn? Just… get out. Just a friendly suggestion. Not an order. On a side note, if you talk back to me, I’m going to turn around, wait until I hear a body hit the ground, and then deal with the winner as I see fit. I wouldn’t suggest starting a fight, though, unless you’re sure you can win.”

Bramblethorn opened his mouth, trembling with fury, his jaw working… and then he clenched it slowly shut and spun, snarling as he stormed off towards a side hall with his aides scrambling after them as Scutum glared in disgust after the small procession, and then he looked with irritation towards Scrivy as Luna and Twilight finally let go of him, the earth pony flushed deeply as he bowed his head forwards and Luna quietly leaned her own down, beginning to heal his wounds with magic as her own face pulsed with pain and faintly-visible bruises. “And you, slave-hoof. Heaven’s Horses I told you not to start fights, and I’ve already got a whole hoof-full of public disturbance complaints and now this. What were you thinking?”

Twilight began to open her mouth, but Scrivy shook his head silently as Luna repaired his glasses next and they settled themselves gently back on his face, and the winged unicorn frowned at the weary look on the earth pony’s face as he glanced embarrassedly up and said finally: “I guess I wasn’t. Bramblethorn just… sets something off in me. No, more than that, this whole place… I guess… it makes me…”

He glanced down in humiliation, and Luna silently kissed his cheek as the glow faded out, sorrow glowing in her eyes… and shame. Shame that she had egged him on, blaming herself for influencing his passions, feeling like she was to blame as inside her, Nightmare Moon only questioned softly why it would have been wrong to allow Scrivener Blooms to do what he had almost done… struck squarely down into Bramblethorn’s horn, likely fracturing his skull and sending the unicorn’s very source of power plunging back into his brain.

Scutum sighed, and then the earth pony glanced up and added awkwardly: “And… Unicorn Commander Scutum… thank you for… well…”

“I only did my job and do not wish to speak further of it. Now please, head up the stairs and speak to the Mayor, and try and not start any more conflicts today, I’m going to be busy enough as it is.” Scutum said tiredly, rubbing slowly at his own face with one hoof before he added moodily: “Please stay out of my way.”

With that, the unicorn turned and strode off, and Scrivener smiled a little before he headed towards the stairs, but Luna shook her head, falling into the lead and saying quietly over her shoulder: “We have done enough damage and mischief for now, Scrivener Blooms and… I am sorry. The consequences… well… I have never been much good at imagining consequences. It is something I shall have to learn to remedy.”

“It’s not your fault Luna, it’s mine. Don’t worry.” Scrivy said softly, and then he laughed a bit as Twilight looked at him with concern, stepping a bit closer. “What, you want to get us in more trouble?”

“Scrivy, it’s okay.” Twilight said quietly as they ascended… and Scrivener blushed a little as he lowered his head and nodded hesitantly, the female giving him a faint smile. “It’s just… usually you just deflect everything with your stupid sense of humor. It’s weird to see you… angry and lashing out like Luna.”

“Too much like me, I think.” Luna murmured softly, but she shook her head quietly as her starry mane fizzled, glancing embarrassedly over her shoulder as the two gazed up at her before she stepped out onto the second floor. “We are all such wretched creatures. But… there, at least it isn’t a far pace away.”

Luna led them towards the mayor’s door – made obvious from both the decorated archway, the plaque over the front, and the glaring unicorn guards that stood outside it – and then these sentinels stepped quickly into their path, one of them saying curtly: “No slave-hoof is permitted audience with the mayor.”

“Permit me make this clear. If I hear my husband called ‘slave-hoof’ again, and if thou do not get out of my way, I will kill thee.” Luna said simply, tilting her head forwards as her eyes gave a faint, brief glow… and she could feel something worse than rage flex inside her, something worse than simple anger… something like contempt, like dark and desolate despair, like the idea that even if they could save these ponies from the growing evil… they could never save them from themselves and the pain they would inflict upon others for generations to come. “Now move.”

The unicorn guards both leaned forwards for a moment, and Luna’s eyes began to narrow as she felt Nightmare Moon rising eagerly to the surface, even as Scrivener winced and Twilight frowned… but then the door flew open, Mayor Caprice grinning weakly at them as she said hurriedly: “L-Let them in, now, there’s no need for all this! They’re delegates and… we have special rules for delegates, do we not?”

The unicorns mumbled and parted, and Luna grimaced as Nightmare Moon settled in what was almost disappointment before the three strode into the mayor’s plush office. It was carpeted in spongy material that felt warm and soft and horribly unfamiliar and neon red; it clashed terribly with the light hazel of her desk, and even worse with the yellow-painted shelves filled with book and documents and yellow-dyed chairs.

The mayor sat in her own: large and leather-backed and big enough it almost seemed to swallow the unicorn up as she gestured to them to sit at the two chairs provided… and Luna only flicked her head to the side to slam the door before she stepped forwards and leaned on the desk, the mayor swallowing and leaning back before her horn glowed and opened a small metal box, lifting this quickly towards Luna. “Cigar? Or a drink, perhaps, I have malts and wines, or, or I can have a servant polish your horn or-”

“Answers.” Luna said coldly, leaning down towards the mayor, and Caprice winced and nodded as she dropped the metal box with a loud clank. “Does thou understand why we are here, first off?”

“To help, yes, that’s… what Celestia said, we trust our Q-Queen here, hail the Queen and all that.” Caprice babbled, and then she winced a little as Luna leaned away, breathing a sigh of relief before she straightened and looked awkwardly towards Scrivy. “Be… that as it may… we have traditions we respect very deeply, and that we must uphold. Tradition is important-”

“Aye, ‘tis, I agree.” Luna said calmly, glancing towards Caprice, and the unicorn began to smile before she instead paled when Luna continued quietly: “In some parts of Equestria in the old, old days, it was tradition for the Baron to only pass on his rule to his son when his son could best him in combat. Then said son would kill his father as a sacrifice to the war gods. It was done with great feasts and smiles and often parts of the body were consumed, ‘for strength.’ This is one of the tamer traditions I can think of.

“Tradition, like all things, can be good and can be bad. For example, if thou art without a foal… and I can tell by looking at thee, thou likely has barely felt the touch of a male, much less borne a foal for one…” Luna gave a derisive grin as Caprice leaned back with a flush, looking both disgusted and humiliated. “Then worry not, all the same, thou has an heir. Scrivener Blooms was disowned by his father, aye… but then this sick family chased him all the way to Canterlot, trying to claim what was ‘rightfully theirs.’ In doing so, they renewed the link, made him ‘one of their own,’ and I use those words with the greatest of contempt. So tell me, Caprice, if he murders thee and thou art so big on tradition, what parts of thy body shall we consume? Because surely thou hast not great intellect, nor great courage, nor great fertility. Perhaps, then, we shall pickle thy hooves: thou seems to flee with great haste, after all.”

Caprice looked a little ill, shivering as she leaned back a bit, and Luna shook her head slowly before asking curtly: “Why is Scutum not present? Yesterday he said he would join us here, and today he seemed to have been sent away.”

“Commander Scutum has… has a job. At… somewhere.” Caprice mumbled awkwardly, looking away… and when Luna glared at her, she winced and held up her hooves. “Commander Scutum is checking on the security forces around the unicorn district!”

“Aye, as I thought, so it is no wonder thy defenses look so forlorn… all the security is around the homes of the upper class, is it not?” Luna asked sharply, and Caprice mumbled but nodded, rubbing nervously at her face and smearing her packed-on makeup. “Tell me, of what threats does North Neigh face? And what does thou know about Silver Hoof?”

“I am the mayor here and I’ll be…” The mare began to look up, saw the look on Luna’s face, and swallowed before lowering her head and shrinking pitifully. “I’ll be answering questions. Yes. I… I’m sorry, what did you ask?”

The winged unicorn sighed in disgust, throwing her head back… and Twilight Sparkle stepped forwards, saying quietly: “Mayor, we are here to help, whatever you might think of us and whatever we… might think of you. But we do have to work together and it’ll help everyone to know what’s going on here… why it’s so… dark, here.”

The mayor looked moodily at Twilight Sparkle, then she mumbled for a moment before leaning forwards and saying tiredly: “Velites and Nibelung are not as big a threat to us as you might think. We have security systems bought from a company, Helios Mutual Holdings-” She didn’t notice the way all three ponies leaned forwards sharply at this. “-and our Pegasus troops are very strong and well trained.

“But there’s ghosts, whether you believe it or not. Everywhere, every night… they scare ponies, some have even gone insane from them. And…” Caprice hesitated, looking up at them with sudden childishness, sudden pleading. “Dead ponies that come… sometimes alone, sometimes with… with music. Oh god, why am I telling you this…”

Caprice dropped her head forwards on the desk, shivering… but Luna was leaning forwards, listening intently, as the unicorn continued to whisper: “I saw my mother among them, and she’s been gone for years. She was cremated… but… she was there. I saw Tia Belle, Scrivener Blooms, your mother, too… Bramblethorn said he didn’t see them but I did…”

She looked up at him, her hooves on the desk, staring across at the earth pony desperately as the male looked at her with surprise, Caprice’s eyes filling with tears. “Did you do this? Are you a sorcerer? Is it all your fault that these… these things are here, are you here to laugh at us now and mock us? If so then just please have mercy, have mercy, and we’ll change! We’ll do anything you want, just… p-p-please…”

And then the unicorn collapsed forwards onto her forelegs, falling into harsh sobs as Scrivy could only stare, throat dry, as Luna leaned back in shock and Twilight shook her head in disbelief, none of them knowing whether to try and comfort the unicorn… or simply revile her all the more for trying to lay all the blame for this evil squarely upon the head of the earth pony that had escaped so many years ago from North Neigh.