• Published 8th Sep 2012
  • 2,693 Views, 343 Comments

Starlit Knights - BlackRoseRaven



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

  • ...
6
 343
 2,693

One Last Journey

Chapter Thirty One: One Last Journey
~BlackRoseRaven

When Scrivener Blooms and Luna awoke, they were still in darkness… but Celestia was gone, and Twilight was sitting at the window, staring quietly out into the shadows. She paused, then glanced quietly over her shoulder at them as Scrivy sat up on the bedding and Luna gazed softly up after him, the male rubbing slowly at his forehead as Twilight asked quietly: “How are you feeling?”

“Better… calmer. I’m still seeing… things… but it’s not as bad now. Luna…” Scrivener softened as he glanced at her, remembering vivid dreams in darkness… and Luna, always there at his side, fighting beside him through thick and thin. He smiled at her faintly, and she smiled back… then climbed quietly to her hooves, and the two traded a short, quiet kiss before the male shook his head and glanced awkwardly towards Twilight as she surveyed them silently. “What time is it?”

“Early morning. The clouds are moving back in, we could be walking into a storm… Celestia said she was going to take a walk around to check it out, then raise the sun.” Twilight hesitated, then she said in a quiet voice: “You two were… talking a little in your sleep. I… well. I don’t really want to repeat some of what you said, but it was… well…”

“Then repeat it not, and we shall not speak of it either, and all shall be well.” Luna replied softly, but she was smiling all the same… and Twilight Sparkle hesitated only for a moment before she nodded slowly, and the two winged unicorns gazed quietly at each other before Luna flicked her starry mane, the ephemeral locks floating softly of their own accord for a moment before settling gently back down. “But how art thou, Twilight Sparkle? Thou… has suffered much tragedy these last few days… and thou… art not like me, hardened by battle. And when I lost Sleipnir… I can say that I handled it with far less grace than thou art handling what has transpired here.”

“Well… we are different, Luna.” Twilight smiled faintly over at her, lowering her head for a moment before she murmured: “I can’t… really grasp what’s happened, to be honest. The enormity of it… and I know it’ll be days, weeks… months… before I understand entirely what’s happened. Just like I know… I was hit with a bitter truth. If I do survive this… I’m going to watch them all… age and die, aren’t I? This isn’t just a blessing, letting me stay beside you and Celestia and Scrivy forever… it’s… a bit of a curse, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” Luna said quietly, straightening, but her eyes were tender as she looked softly towards Twilight, who smiled a little more in appreciation of her unhesitant honesty. “It will… be hard, Twilight Sparkle, and thinking of it now… it makes sense why sister can be so… distant at times, even when she means not to. I watched five hundred years of friends live and die before me upon this world… she has seen seventeen hundred years worth of allies, friends, and foes live, fight, fall, and die before her. And so many of those years, without any companions…”

Twilight glanced down, nodding slowly… and then Scrivener shook his head a bit as he stood up and the three gazed towards the window, as the darkness grew for a moment… and then was washed away by the light of the slowly-rising sun as the violet pony murmured softly: “Baptized in fire, kissed by the sun, held in night’s embrace… a child made to grow up in times of war… magic that glimmers most in the evening.”

Scrivener blushed awkwardly as he glanced away, but Twilight only smiled softly over her shoulder at him, saying quietly: “Remember when Luna harangued you into writing those poems about us? I remember those lines most from mine… and I remember the one you wrote about yourself was made mostly of words that no pony should ever speak.”

“What can I say, I’m a little self-deprecating. It’s all in good fun, though.” Scrivy smiled a little, and then he shook his head a bit as he walked towards his armor, digging in it quietly… and laughing a little as he found Sammy curled up inside his breastplate, the skeletal pseudodragon sticking his head out and giving a chirp that sounded distinctly relieved at the sight of Scrivener Blooms, leaping out and scampering quietly up his limb to curl around his shoulders, nipping softly at the back of his neck. “It’s good to see you too, old friend. But Luna… I suppose… we should get ready.”

“Aye, no time like the present…” Luna paused, then glanced towards where her own armor was piled as Scrivener curiously picked up the polished-looking helm of Sleipnir, tilting it back and forth. “Twilight Sparkle, didst thou…”

“Celestia and I… you were both deep asleep, and Celestia was cleaning her own armor, so I decided to touch yours up a little.” Twilight shrugged a bit and laughed quietly. “I hope that’s okay. Celestia told me a little about… repair spells, and taught me a little. We… talked a lot last night. We were both afraid of disturbing you both at first but… you were so deep asleep for these last few hours, I don’t think a dragon would have woken you up.”

Luna smiled a little, trading a look with Scrivener Blooms… and then the three winced as the door was knocked open, Sammy squeaking and leaping off Scrivy to hide in the blankets over the bedding as Pinkamena came striding in, her armor clinging over her body and straight mane neatly falling in a waterfall over one side of her face. For a moment she looked over them meditatively… and then she simply sat down in the doorway and asked distastefully: “So what the hell are you lazy jerks doing in here? I’ve been packed up since an hour ago, and the others are almost done, too. And hey, Twilight…”

Pinkamena glanced over at her meditatively, and then she smiled a little, saying quietly: “Sissy says that Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash… both say thank you. If you don’t believe me, I don’t give a crowbait’s flank. Besides… Scrivy, you might be able to see ‘em now. Now you see like I do, after all, ain’t that right? But you’d see better if you stop fighting it and concentrate a little… go ahead, try it.”

Twilight was sitting back, obviously not knowing how to take what Pinkamena had just said as Luna frowned towards Scrivener, who shrugged a bit as he reached up and rubbed slowly at his face… and then Pinkamena rolled her eyes, leaning forwards and half-ordering, half-mocking: “Start by relaxing, and then just open your goddamn eyes.”

Scrivy glared at her, but then he sighed as Luna now looked more inquisitive then irritated, and the male grumbled under his breath as he closed his eyes, taking a slow breath, letting himself relax and not fighting even as corrupt images, like dark water, flowed through his mind; disconcerting, but as he had learned now that he had adjusted to them, only harmful if he concentrated on them for too long.

Then he opened his eyes, wincing a bit… and stared as Pinkamena grinned at him: he wasn’t just seeing the lurking colors now, the hints of what were below… when he looked at Pinkamena, he saw a grinning, sleek creature he couldn’t entirely identify. It was mostly pony, but distorted, with broken stumps of wings he knew weren’t really there, and he staggered backwards, blinking a few times… and suddenly, it was just Pinkamena again, and she threw her head back and laughed loudly… but there was a hint of bitterness there as well, even as she exclaimed: “Welcome to the madhouse! Now I really want to take another bite of you…”

Slowly, she licked her lips… and Scrivy shook his head violently as Luna winced and Twilight stepped forwards, but the male rose his hoof and said in a mutter: “No, no. I’m… I’m fine. Just a little… startled… Pinkamena is that really…”

“How the world looks, or how I see?” Pinkamena cocked her head, licking her lips again, eyes eager and shining as she stepped forwards and whispered: “What the hell does it matter, Scrivy? That’s a joke, get it? Hell. Hell is everywhere, hidden beneath everypony’s faces… hidden in the depths of everypony’s mind… and now you see. Now you see! I’m not the crazy one, they all are, the ones who deny the fact that we’re all nothing but lying false faces but not you now, not you anymore… now you’re going to be forced to see. Did the Tyrant Wyrm corrupt you? Or did it purify you?”

Pinkamena stomped her hooves and laughed, and Luna and Twilight both winced away as Scrivener only stared at her, shivers rolling down his spine before he shook his head violently and muttered: “Pinkamena, you’re scaring… everypony here.”

“No, I’m scaring Luna and Twilight.” Pinkamena said sharply, stamping her hooves down as her red-rimmed eyes flashed, suddenly calm and serious again as she straightened back up, and Luna frowned as she shot a sharp look to Scrivener, who met her eyes quietly as thoughts and emotions spilled between them, while Twilight only looked confused… and Pinkamena’s lip curled in a grin. “Cheater. But maybe it’s a good thing. Yes, you and Luna, one in the same, both soaked in darkness… but can you blame me for being so excited? You tried to understand me before, but you never could… and now, now you can.”

“How do you know we even see the same things, Pinkamena? How were you like this even back as Pinkie Pie, even before you were further tainted or… amplified or… whatever happened with the demons?” Scrivener asked, gesturing at her almost violently… and Pinkamena studied him for a few moments as he shouted almost desperately: “How the hell do you know I’m like… you?”

She was quiet… and then she smiled softly, reaching back to silently brush her mane back and shaking her head out slowly. It was an elegant, easy, beautiful gesture… and when she gazed at him, despite her sharp teeth and grayed, barbaric features, she looked kind… gentle even, as she said quietly: “Because, silly. When you’re insane, you see everything that no one else does anyway.”

She paused, then strode up to him and reached a hoof up, gently bopping him on the nose with a teasing grin before she simply spun around and tilted her head backwards, calling easily as she strode towards the door: “Besides, maybe I was crazy back then but the demons made me sane and opened my eyes… or maybe I was sane back then and the demons made me crazy and tried to close my eyes. Who knows? Who cares? You know what I care about?” She stopped halfway through the doorway, glancing moodily over her shoulder. “You two getting the hell ready and getting out here so we can leave this hellhole. We’ll talk more on the way.”

She turned, then half-shoved past Celestia despite the ivory equine’s much larger size, adding mildly: “Hey Princess Sunshine. Don’t expect to win so easy this time when we play ‘kill the most’ on the battlefield again, okay sweetheart?”

Celestia looked moodily after the dull-pink pony, pursing her lips but not speaking… and then she sighed a little as she pushed into the room and made a face at the expressions on the faces of the other ponies, her golden full plate mail glinting over her strong frame. “I see Pinkamena has already started a ruckus. Well, I hope the news that a good few ponies seem to wish to travel with us doesn’t worsen your moods.”

Luna grumbled a bit under her breath, but Twilight only smiled faintly… and Celestia smiled herself at these reactions, saying quietly: “Applejack, Rarity, Spike, Big Macintosh, Commander Scutum, Ross and Kilby Kwolek are all intent to journey with us… as are Aleksandr and his surviving brothers, and I suppose Pinkamena has made it clear she will be coming as well. I… did not think I had any right to deny them this. To be entirely honest… I think that I will in truth be glad for their company. They are all good people from what I have seen. There are a few others as well who wished to join us, but I asked them to stay here, and guard North Neigh. I purified the bog and burned the bodies and the caves… but I do not wish to leave even these ponies to the claws of Nibelung or Velite or whatever other horrors may lurk nearby.”

Luna nodded hesitantly, looking down and frowning a bit as she murmured: “’Tis a larger party than I expected myself… but of good ponies. I only fear what the cost may be, sister… and I fear what Ekleíp has in store, in wait for us.”

“And they have all chosen, with full knowledge that pain and tragedy may lay in the road ahead, that we venture now into the place the Tyrant Wyrms and other horrors first crawled out of, and the understanding of the terrible cost of our war that can only come from fighting… and winning our victories at the awful prices we have.” Celestia said gently, gazing down towards Luna with sympathy… before she smiled faintly and added softly: “But we are two Valkyrie, my sister, with memories of Valhalla reviving in our minds, ready to do whatever must be done to stop Ekleíp… between us, the Elements of Harmony, a chaos spirit of Ginnungagap and the strength of friends… we will prevail. I know we will.”

“So nice to be included.” Discombobulation drawled, and the ponies glanced up with only half-surprise to see him leaning calmly against the far wall, cocking his head towards them as crossed one arm over his chest and flicked his eagle talon almost distastefully as he cocked his head. “So you do understand we’re very likely all going to die, yes? There’s not going to be a morning after, we don’t get to ride off into the sunset, some lucky devil – and I honestly hope it’s not the actual devil amongst us, if we all have to die I’m going to be throwing her to the wolves first to make sure I get to laugh at her before someone cuts off my damn fool head – is going to be claiming our life insurance for a very pretty penny. Also, if I die while on duty, you owe me worker’s compensation, Twilight Sparkle. Not to mention I’ll sue your flank off for misrepresenting this as a ‘golden opportunity to get in on the bottom floor of a surefire investment.’”

For a moment Twilight only looked at him… and then she said softly: “Discombobulation, I release you from your services. I won’t stop you if you want to go… you don’t have to come with us. Just don’t cause too much trouble across Equestria, okay?”

The Draconequus looked stunned at this, a visible pulse echoing through the air as the other ponies gazed with surprise from Twilight to the Draconequus… and then Discombobulation slowly looked down at his hands before he snapped his fingers, and a water balloon appeared above Twilight’s head before dropping down and splattering over her, soaking her mane and making her twitch and glare at him.

But nothing else happened… and the Draconequus looked at her silently before he shook his head slowly as a smile spread over his lips, saying quietly: “So, not good enough for you anymore, huh? Well, I won’t stand for it, Twilight Sparkle. How dare you think yourself better than me, fit to go off and die, and I should just go away and live happily ever after in this darkness-besotted world like the craven coward I am? I will not stand for it, absolutely not. Why, the only sensible thing to do is nonsense: Twilight Sparkle, Scrivener Blooms, Luna and Celestia, I have every intention of dogging your heels all the way to the Black Baroque… and whether you like it or not, Twilight Sparkle, there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

He leaned down, crossing his arms and looking smug as he blew towards her, and Twilight’s mane fluffed out as a burst of hot air flew up around her and instantly dried her out, making her blink and rear back stupidly, blushing in surprise as well as from the burst of heat before she lowered her head forwards and murmured: “Thank you.”

“Shut up, Twilight Sparkle, your reverse psychology already worked and I’m ready to wrestle a giant monkey wearing a tie into submission for his banana hoard.” Discombobulation beat his fists against his chest gamely, and Scrivener Blooms snorted in amusement as he shoved his helmet onto his head. The Draconequus glanced towards him, and then he gave a slight smile, holding up his talon… and with a puff, Scrivy’s glasses appeared in them, the male looking up with surprise as the Draconequus said kindly: “Did they ever call you Piggy, Luna? If so, it’s a good thing we’re not near any islands. That, and the fact that Scrivener Bloom will obviously beat the snot out of anything that threatens her precious little Squishy. I wish I had a Squishy.”

Discombobulation paused, then he snapped his fingers, the glasses vanishing and Sammy squawking as he appeared out of thin air at head level with the Draconequus, flailing in midair before the chimerical creature grabbed him and squeezed him painfully-tight into his body, saying tenderly: “I shall call him Squishy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Squishy.”

Luna was already ignoring the creature as she pulled on her armor, and Scrivener Blooms grumbled as he did the same, rolling his eyes and beginning to pull his own armor on over his frame as he said flatly: “Just… please give me them back at some point then, will you? I don’t even remember when I dropped them… but… they are important.”

“Our important things are always easily forgotten.” Discombobulation said mildly, and then he glanced towards the window before absently tossing Sammy to the bedding, the pseudodragon squawking and scrambling beneath the blankets as the Draconequus strode towards the wall past Twilight, ignoring her completely… and without hesitating, he calmly rose his hands, and reality around him rippled as he passed through the solid surface like it was liquid, the walls trembling before solidifying the moment his long, velvet kangaroo tail passed entirely through.

Celestia grimaced, looking towards Twilight Sparkle and asking hesitantly: “Not that I doubt your judgment, my friend… but… do you really think it was a good idea to free the creature Discombobulation from service? He is a chaos spirit from Ginnungagap, thriving on confusion… and now freed…”

“I don’t think he was lying. In fact, I know he wasn’t… but… it just seemed like the right thing to do, Celestia.” Twilight smiled awkwardly towards the ivory equine, bowing her head quietly towards her. “I don’t… want to force him to come with us on this if he doesn’t want to. We all need to be in this together, all doing this of our own free will… and I don’t think he’ll cause too much trouble.”

She nodded firmly… then winced at the sound of a loud bang outside, turning around to stare out the window before grumbling and storming towards the doorway, and Celestia sighed and shook her head slowly even as Luna grinned a bit, her horn glowing as she fitted the last of her armor quickly over her body. “Worry not, sister… Twilight Sparkle is of good instinct, and strange as it is, I will be gladder to have the creature fighting at our side, capable of its own thought and decisions than it was fighting under Twilight Sparkle’s orders. Discombobulation… ‘tis a friend. And here, Scrivener Blooms, permit me.”

Scrivy winced as Luna flicked her horn, the last of his gear flying up and quickly strapping and clanking into place over his form, his body flexing against his black and silver, polished armor. He gave her a flat look, but Luna only smiled, saying quietly: “Let us dilly-dally no more, daydreamer. Celestia, little Samael, Scrivy… let us be on our way. Away from this town… the road will give us time enough for the last discussions we must share.”

“Kind of funny.” Scrivener murmured quietly, as Sammy scampered quickly out of the bedding to hop up onto his back, running quickly forwards to sit comfortably on his armored shoulder. “I never thought we’d actually be heading out of North Neigh to somewhere worse… but I guess the really weird thing is that I’m almost looking forwards to it.”

Luna smiled a little over her shoulder at him as she headed towards the door, saying softly: “Aye, Scrivener Blooms… but worry not. ‘Tis natural… and there is much to hope for in the future, strange as it may sound. There is hope that we may save our daughter, and hope that we may stop this darkness from spilling over Equestria… aye, insufferable black optimism tells me that everything that can still be saved, unlike thy preferred friends realism and her rich and successful cousin pessimism.”

“And I’m the poet.” Scrivy said softly as he followed her, and Celestia shook her head slowly behind them, but she was smiling faintly all the same herself as the three headed out of the apartments, Luna rolling her shoulder absently and making the spear holstered on her back seem to thrum with only her movement alone. Scrivener’s eyes locked on this, kept safe just above the joint of her wing, wondering silently about Luna’s old days and how that knowledge would all come into play… but he only felt a tickle through his mind that slid slowly like a hoof down his spine, and he closed his eyes at Luna’s soothing, more-felt-than-heard thought.

The three stepped outside and found Bob standing with his arms crossed moodily on top of a wagon, looking flatly down at Twilight Sparkle before Luna ordered calmly but clearly: “All who are to come with us to the Black Baroque, fall immediately into line. Three to each row… face us, as we face thee.”

Celestia and Scrivener stood to either side of Luna, and she blushed a bit even as she glanced towards her older sister even as Celestia bowed her head in respectful deference, and the sapphire winged unicorn closed her eyes, murmuring a soft ‘thank you.’ Then she gazed back forwards… and smiled faintly at the sight before her, saying quietly: “Silly fools. Even now, the Starlit Knights are not true soldiers, are we?”

Twilight stood at the head of the group with Pinkamena beside her, the winged unicorn blushing and the dull-pink earth pony only grinning darkly… and behind her, Cowlick, Ross, Applejack and Big Mac formed a line, and behind them stood Rarity and Spike, leaning quietly against one-another as Scutum stood calmly to Spike’s other side, white armor embossed with profiles of unicorns in deepest obsidian protecting his strong frame and deadly silver crosshatch blades glinting over his forelimbs, with a short sword additionally holstered over his back. And at the back of the group, Aleksandr stood with his hammer resting on his shoulder, as calm and confident as ever, the two surviving minotaurs standing to either side of him.

And yet, in spite of it… Luna smiled, even as they awkwardly tried to shuffle themselves into better grouping, Discombobulation looking down at them moodily from his wagon before he said dryly: “You know, if things keep going this badly, you can say goodbye to Poland.”

“Silence, Bob. They are not soldiers. They are warriors, and there is a difference.” Luna replied calmly, glancing up towards the Draconequus before she returned her eyes to the group, saying quietly: “I shall keep this short. We leave immediately. Gather the few things thou all will require… require, do not take anything extra for this journey ahead. We shall carry minimal supplies with us, and if thou has not yet eaten, then thou shall be eating on the walk. We march hard into the Gray Mountains, under the light of the sun, before the clouds move heavily in. The mountains, like the Everfree Forest, have always had a wildness, a will of their own… even should a storm strike North Neigh hard, when we are in the mountains, I guarantee the weather shall be vastly strange and different.

“Our goal is the Black Baroque. The veteran Nibelung swarm from here… Ignominious came through there… and Ekleíp is said to have made their base there, in that twisted fortress that stands as a shortcut between our beautiful Equestria and the cold, icy pits of Helheim.” Luna closed her eyes, bowing her head forwards and saying softly: “We must be wary. There will be terrible enemies laying in wait ahead… and Ekleíp itself is not a foe we can risk underestimating. Thou must take caution to avoid at all costs being cut, to avoid shedding any blood in the presence of the cultists. But as we make our way forwards, I shall speak more of this… for now, I am eager to depart and hurry upon our way.”

“Wait, though… what about… what about us? About the Elements of Harmony?” Applejack asked quietly, looking up with a frown… but her eyes were distant, and her voice had no venom, even as she murmured: “Not that they’ve done any good so far… but even if the… even if Fluttershy and… R… my….”

She closed her eyes tightly, bowing her head forwards, and Luna and Twilight both gazed quietly at Celestia, who bowed her head and said softly: “The Elements of Harmony are not a lie, are not without their use… but too late, I realized what they actually were. What they actually are. They look cute and harmless, don’t they? Childish. Pretty gemstones, reacting to such ‘positive’ emotions, meant to do ‘good.’ But by forcing ‘order’ or ‘harmony’ or ‘peace’ upon something… you all saw what they did to Discord. Order and peace forced upon a person is only another form of tyranny, a lobotomy of the very soul.”

Celestia halted, then looked up and said quietly: “The Elements of Harmony have a purpose. They may yet have a part to play… but to use them, you must understand and accept one another, and accept the Elements themselves, and their true purpose: that they are not a deus ex machina, here to save all of us from this chaos with one smile and a happy speech. They are a tool, and like any tool, they can be used for good, such as when they flushed the corruption from Nightmare Moon and returned my sister to me…” Celestia smiled a little towards Luna, glancing at her quietly as she bowed her head. “Or evil, when they neutralized the chaos of Discord and turned him to stone.

“But for them to work… you must all understand each other. This is most important: I do not question that each of you, even Scutum, even Ross, even Pinkamena, has inside what it will take to power them. You are no longer six friends… but you can at least recognize each other as six Equestrians, and more than that, six ponies, standing up for a united belief. The connections are tenuous and yielding, but they are still there… you must merely find the right way, the right words, the right amount of understanding for each other, and they will work. They must work…” Celestia closed her eyes and bowed her head forwards, murmuring: “Or all that I sacrificed in my foolish quest for a quick, childish, ‘be-all, end-all’ answer will come to mean nothing.”

There was silence for a few long moments… and then Applejack sighed quietly, looking towards Big Mac, and he simply nodded slowly. She nodded silently back, then returned her eyes forwards, hesitating only a moment longer before she murmured: “Okay. I… okay. God… I wish Dashie was here. He’d make some stupid joke and… everything would be okay…”

She closed her eyes, bowing her head forwards, and there was silence for a moment before Luna took a slow breath. She felt suddenly nervous as she gazed up at the sky… then she gritted her teeth before straightening, throwing away her apprehension, her worries, her fears for what had not yet passed as she called clearly: “Aleksandr! I shall require thy presence momentarily! To all others… gather thy belongings, and then meet back here, thou hast no more than five minutes! Understood?”

Ponies stomped their hooves and shouted as Aleksandr leaned towards one of his minotaur brethren, giving a short order as the minotaur nodded quickly before running off. Luna smiled a little over the group, watching the ponies heading on their way almost as if dazed, half-hurrying and half-stumbling as Pinkamena simply lounged and rolled her shoulders, while Twilight walked quickly up to them.

She hesitated, looking over Celestia, Luna, and Scrivener… and then she blushed a bit and bowed her head before murmuring: “I’ll go and… gather things up from our room. Is there anything…”

“We have all that we need.” Luna said softly, glancing towards Scrivy tenderly as the male smiled a little despite himself… and then her eyes roved slowly up to Discombobulation, adding mildly: “Except, of course, for Scrivener’s glasses. I would dearly like for thou to give those back, Bob of Ginnungagap… they have an especial meaning to my husband and I both.”

“Gay pop singer or Austrian killing machine?” Discombobulation asked dryly, flicking his wrists to either side: in his left hand, star-shaped frames with pink-tinted lenses, in his right, sleek black shades. Both Scrivener and Luna glared at him, and the Draconequus sighed before he glanced indecisively from one set of glasses to the other… then tossed both of them aside and instead put his forefingers and thumbs together as her rose his hands to his face and peered through the circles of his fingers. “Hey, hey, hey, what do you say?”

With that, he wriggled his nose… and Scrivener flinched backwards in surprise as a burst of multicolored smoke puffed over his face, leaving his glasses resting quietly atop his muzzle as if they’d never been lost. Then Discombobulation hopped backwards, vanishing behind the cart… before slowly, awkwardly peering over the top of it, his hands still formed into glasses around his eyes. “For all intents and purposes, I’m not here. It just happens to be far calmer in reality than outside it right now… you’ve all seen the Pales. They’ve filled up the spaces between spaces in this awful place… I dislike trying to read clop-fiction online while there are ghosts bizarrely hovering all around.”

With that, Discombobulation ducked back behind the carriage, and Scrivener gave a grimace of distaste as Luna only looked meditative, before she glanced towards Scrivy and muttered: “Crazed, deluded and insane or not, the beast does have a habit of lightening the mood that I do appreciate. Celestia… does thou know the way?”

“Of course, sister. You know it never takes me long to memorize a map.” Celestia replied softly, glancing towards Luna with a small smile on her face. “While we walk… I wish to speak to you of Valhalla. I remember that as Freya, I was… a mix of the selves I have been over my life here. I feel… I do not know if I am purified after all my years lived and the experiences I have had, or if I am instead diluted… but either way, it feels for the better, do you understand? Funny… to feel that as this worldly winged unicorn, I have transcended what I was as a Valkyrie.”

She smiled despite herself, glancing down and nodding thoughtfully… but Luna only smiled a little, glancing towards her and saying quietly: “But ‘twas lonely in Asgard, was it not? We all claimed we were superior while looking down at Midgard, ever-peering over its inhabitants here, studying them, enjoying their stories, some few of us even claiming worship from them in the ancient days. Odin made us from the remains of the Jötnar… that, and primordial energies. Or were we born, and only told these legends? I no longer remember.”

“Nor do I, sister… it was a long time ago. Perhaps before I was given the name Freya and you were called Brynhild… not everything can be explained. Not everything will be clear.” Celestia paused, then she lowered her head, saying quietly: “But what bothers me… is that the more I think, the more I reflect upon who we once were… the more I feel like I recognize what brings this darkness. The presence…”

“The puppet-master…” Luna murmured, shaking her head with a shiver as she heard the howl of wolves in memory… but before they could speak further, Twilight returned with a pair of saddlebags over her body, an awkward smile on her face as the others began to filter back as well. But Luna didn’t question her, and Scrivy stepped forwards with a small smile, taking one of the bags from her to throw over his own back as Sammy chirped softly and peered apprehensively towards the mountains.

The others gathered, and understood to follow without being told, as Aleksandr found his way to the front of the group and strode silently behind them. Gradually, they naturally formed into strange but workable ranks: spearheaded by their strongest, with minotaurs at their rear, Ross keeping nervously to the middle but comforted by Cowlick as the Element of Kindness gleamed softly around his neck and a lightweight, armored vest glinted over his body. But none doubted him, any more than they allowed themselves to doubt Scutum, or any other member of their strange group: they knew that they all had a job to do, and all had to work together to get it done… to save what was left to be saved.

They strode calmly through town, unicorns, earth ponies, and Pegasi standing on the streets, watching silently as the procession passed. Behind them, a trail of ponies followed… not soldiers, not those who sought to fight… only those who were being drawn onwards for one reason or another. Among them, blank-flanked earth ponies who had never been allowed to discover their special talent walked next to unicorns dressed in heavy, expensive furs, and Pegasus soldier and Pegasus outlaw… following, barely aware of why, walking in the hoof-prints of the ponies they had reviled, and who had all the same saved their lives.

They strode to where the hole in the fencing at the northern edge of town was, striding towards the battlefield beyond from which still rose smoke, which smelt even from this distance of burnt offerings and charred death… and Luna looked only once over her shoulder, with pity, past the ponies and minotaurs that strode behind her at the gathering that now stood at the edge of town. The ponies no longer followed them, trapped inside the borders of their own city, staring with strange helplessness after the group… and Luna shook her head slowly before she faced back ahead, saying quietly: “Odin was never much for giving peace, but may he spare a little sympathy for these pathetic wretches all the same.”

“None of the Aesir were ever much for party games, though. It was all killing and drinking and acting all tough all the time.” Discombobulation remarked calmly, from where he walked easily at the flank of the group… and Luna smiled a little, nodding a bit at this sentiment. “And depravity, too. Freya’s passions were legendary. Apparently on and off the battlefield she was quite… aggressive. But I’m sure you don’t know anything about that, do you, Celestia?”

Celestia sighed… but then, to the surprise of the others, she smiled over her shoulder at the chaotic entity, asking quietly: “And what if I said that I did? What if I said that I accept every part of my past, every part of who I was, and that is how I’ve come to find this… this inner peace in myself? First I embraced passion and power, without trying to temper it, and it led to me doing awful things for selfish motives. Then I tried to make myself passionless, and I became nothing but a machine of arrogant strategy and contempt for the world around me. Either extreme led me to believing that I was somehow… better… than everyone around me. Wildfire or clockwork… one is beautiful and destructive, the other is intricate and logical but without emotion, without sympathy.

“Now I understand that harmony is not simply purely good, purely benevolence, purely one thing. It is a thousand different things, all at once… it is balance.” Celestia looked ahead, saying softly: “I no longer feel a need to strive to be… perfect. Perfection… is a flaw in and of itself. Perfection is distant and ruthless, and a single flaw, a single change, shatters and distorts it forever. Perfection seeks to impose… I am flawed. I accept that, and I accept myself. I accept my past, who I was, and have hopes for who I will become, even now; even now, I look to evolve, to be better than I am… but never to be perfect. To be wiser, to be more compassionate, to rip down the golden clockwork, smother the flames, and find a median. To be less like the sun… and more like the moon.”

She gazed affectionately down at Luna, who laughed quietly and blushed, looking humbled as her eyes roved awkwardly ahead… and then becoming more solemn as they began to silently cross the frozen mire of the battleground, broken pieces of armor and charred bones still laying here and there, foul-smelling smoke spilling silently into the air from the mostly-collapsed maw of the cavern as ponies gazed silently towards this… and then Aleksandr calmly interrupted Luna’s thoughts, asking softly: “I do not wish to rush… but you asked for me before, Yaga Baba?”

“Oh, I… yes, yes, Aleksandr, I am sorry. Amidst everything else… I suppose I must have misplaced thy hulking presence.” Luna smiled a little towards him, then she shook her head and said softly: “We venture into the Gray Mountains, my friend… I do not know what we face ahead, but I know there are terrible things there. The Black Baroque itself is a place of great evil, and Ekleíp will have fortified the ancient structure further and who knows what monsters they have enlisted to aid them? The Nibelung seem to bow willingly to their aid, we have seen Phooka captured and used as sentinels, they have golems and Dead Dolls and even Velites… and if their goal truly is Ragnarok, they have already proven they will stoop to any low to achieve their aims, from the terrible Tyrant Wyrm and what they have done… to our friends. To Scarlet Sage.”

Luna shook her head slowly, then she looked up and said quietly: “Thou and thy brothers already seem to do it naturally, but I implore thee to guard our back: I trust in thy combat ability and expertise for this task, and know thou will not fail.”

“Then I shall, and we watch for evil eyes in the mountains. Is not good, though…” Aleksandr grimaced a bit, glancing apprehensively towards the tall, ominous peaks. “Is dark and terrible place, like where Alklha-illych once dwelled. I do not wish to deal again with such things… or worse, with those who hunt such monsters.”

“Worry not, Aleksandr… Sol Seraph was too cruel and monstrous for there to have existed more than one of her kind.” Luna said distastefully, and Aleksandr grunted in agreement before the minotaur lightly tapped his hammer against one of his large, bovine horns in a short salute before he turned and headed to the back of the group.

They strode along the base of the mountains until they came to a gently-sloped, icy pass… and Scrivener grimaced a little, twitching a bit as Pinkamena murmured behind him: “Yes… it’s exciting and terrifying all at once, isn’t it? And the fear… the fear only makes me more eager. You’ll understand soon…”

Scrivener shook his head weakly as Twilight looked at him worriedly… but he knew that while the others could perhaps sense it, could perhaps see vague outlines… they couldn’t see the Pales, and the awful, darker things that stood amongst them. There were no less than thirty ghosts to either side of the mountains, all staring sadly out at him, faces of the recently-dead he recognized amidst strangers… as well as the tall, black-winged creatures, like enormous birds with hooves instead of talons, and dark hoods that hid their heads completely from view. And Scrivener could feel Luna’s thoughts twisting with his, could feel her accessing his senses, seeing what he saw… and she grimaced a bit even as they continued forwards, the winged unicorn looking slowly back and forth as she murmured: “Celestia… we are being watched by Pales… and Grimm. This means…”

“Yes, sister. We saw them watching, perched over Sleipnir as he slept, the night before he died. They gather upon battlefields before a massacre. They haunt cities before they are destroyed. It means that in all likelihood, death is in the future.” Celestia said softly, but she only looked calmly ahead as she led them fearlessly up the mountain path. “I do not believe they will leave disappointed, either… but let us hope that what gluts their desire for carnage is the enemy’s death, and not our own.”

Luna nodded silently, shivering a bit as Scrivener closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards. He tried to keep his gaze down as they strode in silence into the mountains, whispers going up and down through the group as the ponies banded together… and even as the clouds above parted, the sun shining down over them silently, there was a distinct air of malice, of unease, of terror, as they strode down a rocky, natural road and into a gorge between tusk-like juts of rock… and whenever Scrivener looked up, he saw Pales and ghosts of other creatures, other races, striding calmly along with them… and other things. Other ghastly omens he had not words for, like when the world around them seemed to become nothing but ice, the ground beneath bone, and he staggered, Luna turning to catch him as the others stopped, the equine shivering as he looked back and forth as everything returned to normal… but Pinkamena chuckled as she lowered her head and whispered: “Reality is getting thinner. We should all sing a song. It’ll help.”

Applejack and Scutum both simply stared at Pinkamena, and Twilight frowned over her shoulder as Luna gave a wry grin… and then, at the back of the group, Aleksandr threw his head back and began to sing a war song in a brazen, defiant voice in his own language, the other minotaurs slamming the flats of their weapons against their broad chests before beginning to chant as well.

Pinkamena threw her head back and laughed… and Celestia only shook her head and turned, beginning to walk forwards, Luna and Scrivener falling into pace behind her after a moment as Twilight ran up to the male’s other side… before he smiled dryly as he looked down, adjusting his glasses and mumbling: “You know what the worst part is? I think Pinkamena was actually telling the truth.”

The minotaurs continued in their strong, powerful voices, as they strode through the gorge, fearlessly striding between the stony ribs of rock that jutted along either side of them, even as snow fell here and there from the peaks above… and Applejack strode with her head lowered, braided hair flying back in the faint wind, as Big Mac kept himself focused, kept himself striding calmly ahead, and Rarity and Spike stayed close together, striding side-by-side, the dragon carrying his shield in one hand and the other resting silently on the unicorn’s back.

Luna’s eyes flicked up, spotting a glint in the distance… and a shape that moved quickly along a cliff-top. Without having to ask, however, Celestia replied quietly, clear even over the voices of the minotaurs: “Nibelung. They conceal themselves well… they are not bandits, nor raiders. These are likely those chosen by the Blood Seers to protect them… but why they have not attacked us, I am unsure. There may be something up ahead… or perhaps Wisehorse knew that we would all come together. I do not wish to risk underestimating the Blood Seer who is likely in charge of Ekleíp, and behind this monstrosity.”

“Aye, sister, and nor do I.” Luna agreed quietly, and then she looked ahead towards the end of the gorge, saying softly: “And of Valhalla, what did thou wish to speak? Of our old life?”

Celestia smiled a little at this, looking ahead silently as Twilight and Scrivener Blooms walked quietly to either side of the siblings… and then the ivory equine said softly: “In a sense. It is a difficult question to answer, sister… because I wish to speak of many things, most of which are not important in the grand scheme of everything. But I have come to believe… to think, at least… that we were placed here, in this world, for a reason. That we did not simply fall so much as we were… thrown from Asgard, before whatever it was that destroyed the world above… could harm us further. I believe we were killed… but as we died, we were saved in the same breath.”

She stopped, then murmured softly: “You were put to sleep by Odin and spent years in silent coma, because you refused his advances… and because you argued with him about what the Aesir did to the Vanir. We were turned against one another, and we almost destroyed one another, over what ended up being a wild misunderstanding… but you were angry with Odin. With his callousness towards the Vanir, the nature gods, whom he detested, whom he saw as our one surviving enemy, after the Jötnar were destroyed. The Vanir were all but wiped out… the Aesir too, were devastated. And whatever had led us against one-another… did not prey on us right away. It was smarter and crueler… it knew what would happen. You were put to sleep… and infighting began. Infighting that lasted more than a century, resulting in feuds, battles, a loss of soldiers, a rupturing of Valhalla, the shattering of our alliances with other races and other worlds as gods killed one another and simply vanished… and then we were attacked at our weakest and most desperate by Helheim’s forces. I do not know what led them against us, I do not remember much apart from demons, fighting fiercely but always another, another, another to take its place until I could fight no more…”

She closed her eyes and smiled faintly, murmuring: “My last thoughts were not of Odin. To me, he had betrayed us, and I fought as Valkyrie not to protect him, but to protect my home, and the honor we had once all had. They were of my allies… my warriors, my family. And they were of you, Brynhild… you were special to me even back then.”

She quieted, gazing forwards as Luna blushed a bit, looking to the skies and murmuring: “’Tis strange, sister, but… I do not miss it as much as I thought I would. Aye, ‘twas paradise, but… there is so much more to enjoy in this world. There is so much more meaning, with fewer rules and laws and searching, judging eyes… and those who do search and judge can be ignored, just as I often ignored thee.” Luna smiled over at Celestia, and the ivory equine laughed quietly and shook her head slowly. “Or perhaps I just enjoy being a pony, and a winged unicorn at that… or perhaps it is because now I can look at thee, and say thou art my sister, as Sleipnir was my brother… and Scrivener Blooms is my soulmate. My soulmate, who even now despite his addled mind and damaged body, still follows me along incessantly, no matter what plight seems to befall us.”

She gazed over her shoulder at him softly, and Scrivener smiled faintly at her with a bit of a shrug, then he glanced quietly to the side, gazing quietly at the Pales that had taken to walking with the group, studying them, half-recognizable as they glimmered on the edge of reality. “Well, there’s no place else I’d rather be than your side, Luna. Without you, life doesn’t have any meaning. It’s selfishness, really… and besides, like Pinkamena says. We need each other now, right?”

“Somehow, when thou says it, I understand now what she meant, and for more reasons than merely our linked mind.” Luna said softly, gazing thoughtfully ahead as she nodded slowly. “Aye, for it is not just that we need each other… it is that we loved, trusted, desired one-another enough in the first place to form this codependency. And I will be the first to admit that it does have its negatives… but to say these outweigh the positives would be the inordinate grumbling of the bitter cynic. Judge me not based upon thine own experiences and rules… I do not bow to either category.”

Twilight smiled despite herself at this, glancing quietly at the winged unicorn as she said softly: “Always looking for a fight when it comes to that, aren’t you? You always say that and it always seems like you want us to disagree with you… or like you think that any of us here would be dumb enough to try and make fun of you for how clingy you are.”

“Memories of the old life, perhaps… and perhaps… awkwardness for the fact that before Scrivener Blooms… I had Celestia and Sleipnir. In the old days there were admirers and other friends, aye, but…” Luna shook her head slowly. “Well, thou saw Ignominious. And of others, well… I attracted darkness. I have always attracted darkness, as I am the night… as the mark splattered over my flank gleams black instead of Celestia’s gold.”

“But our emblems are deeper than that… all pony’s emblems go deeper than they realize. Because all ponies earn their cutie marks… their emblems… not when they first find out what their hidden talent is… but instead when they discover something a little deeper. How often, Twilight Sparkle, did you practice magic before you received your emblem?” Celestia smiled a little over her shoulder, gazing tenderly at the violet pony as she looked back up at her softly, for a fleeting moment once more affectionate student to her beloved teacher. “Just as Scrivener Blooms, I know you wrote and were drawn to writing before your own mark appeared. It is not a talent, or acceptance of destiny… it is a metaphor. It is about acceptance of self, and discovering confidence, and a thousand other things that can never be broken down into simple, easy sentences, much as I wish they could be.”

The ponies nodded slowly… and for a little while, they journeyed on with these thoughts in mind, beneath the cloudy skies as the sun watched over them like a vast golden eye, following the ponies as they made their way quietly forwards past the rocky, jutting cliffs along the frozen, natural stone road. And behind them, minotaurs sang war songs with voices that all-but-shook the mountains, knowing that all around them lurked darkness: Nibelung in rawhide and leather armor, carrying axes and shields and with glaring, soulless eyes, and Grimm that silently, invisibly circled, flapped, and slithered through the cliffs, unseen eyes peering eagerly out from beneath their hoods.

The Starlit Knights, the group of warriors, the Equestrians strode onwards over shale and frost and rock, as the darkness swirled and danced all around them, half-hidden in the folds of reality, under the veil of disguising light cast from the sun… and far in the distance, the Black Baroque awaited, not knowing that it was merely another stage awaiting the arrival of the last of the players so one final, merciless carnival show could begin.