• Published 8th Sep 2012
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Starlit Knights - BlackRoseRaven

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

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The Nature Of The Predator

Chapter Six: The Nature Of The Predator

“Madness!” Luna fumed, storming back and forth around the den of their cottage as Scrivener calmly wrote at his desk, the winged unicorn gritting her teeth before she pawed violently at a cushion, then mashed her head down against it with a yell of frustration before leaping up to all fours, mane sizzling around her. “The Pegasus is mad, Scrivener Blooms! ‘Tis madness! Madness!”

“Yes, I got that the first time.” Scrivy said tiredly, and then he winced when a pillow flew across the room and smacked into his head, grumbling a bit before he finally dropped his quill and turned towards her as she gave him a frustrated look. “You’re the one saying we had to be patient.”

“Nay, Nightmare Moon said patience, and continues to plead for it. I plead to beat her as I have not beaten anything before.” Luna retorted, then she beat a violent tattoo against the floor with her front hooves, making Scrivy wince a little as she left cracks and gashes in the hardwood. “The creature mocks us, Scrivener Blooms!”

Scrivy strode towards her and quietly hugged her, and immediately Luna seemed almost to deflate, her mane sparking before it flowed forwards and almost wrapped around him as she dropped her face against his neck, pushing herself against him as she murmured quietly: “She has more planned than I had expected, daydreamer. She is indeed a hunter, a predator. And I fear what she may yet do.”

Sol Seraph had indeed been waiting for them, not looking for Applejack or Rainbow Dash. She had wanted to pass along several statutes that were being implemented as a ‘kindness’ on her part, but it had been obvious what she had been attempting to do: provoke them into a heated response, possibly even a confrontation.

Essentially, Sol Seraph had used connections and coercions to further empower her status in Ponyville: Mayor Mare had signed several legal documents that authorized her security staff to take ‘all necessary precautions and actions to ensure the safety of Ponyville,’ as well as authorized new laws that were now in full effect. Not that the mayor was entirely to blame… the papers had been further backed by a variety of upstanding members of the Royal Court, and while Celestia was likely to overturn the ruling, the nobles and politicians of Canterlot were likely doing everything in their power to keep the Princess occupied in other matters for the moment.

Sol Seraph was already making use of her likely-short window of time where she held most of Ponyville at her mercy: she had ordered that to ensure the safety of Ponyville, all non-residents had to register at the ‘Visitor’s Office’ now installed in city hall and undergo a screening process, then wear clear identifiers while they were in city limits. She had also installed a curfew at sunset, after which the law would permit her security forces to deal with any ‘dissidents’ with ‘all required strength,’ up to and including lethal force.

She had also calmly announced that no other military or security service would be permitted inside Ponyville, and ordered the so-called ‘Starlit Knights’ to disband: Twilight had pointed out that she couldn’t give such a command as it went against the order of Princess Celestia herself, and Sol Seraph had only taken a drag on her cigarette, and said in her awful, cold voice: “Celestia is not here. I am. For now, Ponyville belongs to me. Speak to me again in that tone, and you’ll earn yourself a time-out in an isolation booth. I do not discuss privilege with unicorns who sell their bodies and souls for power.”

That had almost made Luna snap, as Twilight had only stared in horror… but thankfully, Luna had held off, and Sol Seraph had surveyed them with silence before simply leaving. It had left another question, though, which was why she didn’t simply have them all arrested: more and more, Scrivener was wondering if the Pegasus wasn’t simply insane.

“Nay, Scrivy, she is a predator… a hunter.” Luna muttered, pressing closer against him for a moment before she sighed and pulled back, instead turning to flop down on the bedding and moodily look over towards Sammy, as the skeletal pseudodragon chirped quietly from a cushion at her. “The creature knows her game well… she is cornering us, bit-by-bit. Yet still, she avoids moving directly against us… this time, attacking through the guise of politics and law. Law we have already sent letters to my sister about, laws that Celestia will undoubtedly revoke, even if I am sure it will take a surprising amount of time for Sol Seraph to receive these demands to remit her power over Ponyville, and she will likely drag the process out over the course of weeks if she is permitted to stay that long inside the village.”

Luna halted, then shook her head slowly as Scrivy laid down beside her, the two pressing quietly together as the winged unicorn turned her head towards the blue flames that quietly burned in the fireplace, gazing at them musingly. “Nay, this is a distraction. A smokescreen, and I begin to think that even if she has a vested interest in us, there is something else she is after, too. Somepony or something else she wishes to acquire, and I dare not guess at her true purpose, confused as it is, but her aims seem to be to separate us all from one-another, to draw us into attacking her, confronting her. I sense hidden agendas and ulterior motives beneath the roving waters… and perhaps even a torn loyalty. For sickening as it is, Sol Seraph does seem to wish to protect Ponyville from incursions… but her ideas of ‘protection’ and ‘good’ are more terrifying than Celestia’s ideas of ‘justified force.’”

Scrivener grimaced a little at this, nodding slowly as the two pressed together… and then Luna sighed and slumped a little, moodily pawing at the floor with one hoof and muttering: “And poor Fluttershy. Afraid to go anywhere in Ponyville without the cover of friends and allies… she is caught in a desperate and dire situation I wish dearly I could do something, anything, to remedy for her. I cannot imagine what it has been like for the poor child…”

She quieted, shaking her head slowly, then she grimaced a bit and turned towards Scrivener, leaning forwards and burying her face against the side of his neck quietly. “I know. I know, my beloved, we must continue to show what patience and mettle we can, and wait for the serpent to corner itself into a position where it cannot strike at us. Twilight Sparkle has advised me that she will keep in contact, and visit if time and responsibility allow. This, at least, I am very glad for… but Horses of Heaven, Scrivener Blooms… I do not enjoy this.”

“But Spike and Twilight are working their way through the documents and statutes that Sol Seraph has put together. So we can at least know what exactly we’ll be dealing with… remember what Twilight was saying? She was worried there’s emergency provisions hidden in the laws, something that will allow Sol Seraph to call in more security forces or further lock down Ponyville, maybe even go against Equestria’s First Laws.” Scrivener said quietly, and Luna nodded grouchily against him, grumbling a little under her breath. “Like you said, though, one thing at a time. We’ll figure out a way to deal with Sol Seraph, one way or another. We just need to be patient.”

Luna mumbled something, then she pushed herself away and half-clambered to her hooves… then apparently found this too tiring, instead flopping down against the male and almost knocking him sprawling as she dropped her neck over his, mumbling: “Scrivener Blooms, I command thee to make everything better.”

Scrivy smiled despite himself, laying down and crossing his front legs beneath his head as he asked mildly: “Have you ever read anything I’ve ever written? I never make anything better. I just make everything worse. That’s my thing.”

“Aye, thy poetry could use a little more comedy that doesn’t involve ponies being set aflame or rent asunder, funny as that may be when I am in the proper mood for it.” Luna replied drolly, and then she shook her head with a smile of her own before she slipped closer towards him, wrapping a forelimb around his shoulders and half-pulling herself on top of the male as she murmured softly into his ear: “But that is fine, Scrivener Blooms, for thou understands the bizarre truth that sometimes nothing must work out for everything to be okay.”

Scrivy smiled a little bit as he rested down against the bedding, Luna laying quietly with him… and they remained like this for quite a while, until Sammy slowly walked over to them, sat calmly on his haunches, and then spat a letter out into Luna’s face, making her topple off Scrivener, then leap to her hooves with a yell and childishly chase the pseudodragon around the cottage as Scrivy calmly unrolled the parchment and read it over.

It was a long letter from Celestia, detailing information she’d found out ‘interrogating’ Bucephalus – “Does thou remember how I said sometimes ‘twas funny to think of ponies being aflame? This letter suggests sister agrees and indulged in that particular sport of comedy.” Luna noted while trying to yank Sammy out from under their bedding – and retrieving financial records, that Sol Seraph was definitely here in part because of the imprisoned ex-general’s apparently long-laid plans to ‘help restore Equestria to a state of peace and harmony.’ Bucephalus was convinced that Celestia simply didn’t have the ‘moral fiber’ to hunt down her own sister or face off against the growing darkness throughout Equestria, and determined to do anything it took to protect his own country.

He had made the deals through a proxy and several members of the Royal Court who had been willing to vouch for him, and a legal loophole that permitted him to ‘donate legally-obtained finances towards the service of Equestria as an act of charity.’ But Celestia had caught wind of another interested party as well, that had possibly used Bucephalus for its own ends. Mostly through instinct, and because of a few strange promissory notes and scraps of letters they had discovered after conducting a short search of the few belongings Bucephalus was allowed in his dank cell.

The letter also mentioned that Celestia had vetoed the statutes of power handed down from the Royal Court to Sol Seraph, and sent letters to Twilight Sparkle, Mayor Mare, HMH Headquarters, and Sol Seraph herself, all outlining new limitations placed on the security force and the corporation. It was a very direct move, unlike Celestia’s usual behind-the-scenes gambits, and Luna looked up curiously from where she had cornered Sammy as the male thought about this, the winged unicorn saying slowly: “’Tis strange indeed. ‘Tis almost as if she plans to advertise my existence to Equestria… but that would be foolish. She is the ruler that Equestria wants, perhaps even the ruler it needs. Sadly, the position that I must fall in, for the service of Equestria… ‘tis the role of villain and trickster, of Nightmare Moon.”

She quieted, and Sammy chirped at her as he ran forwards and scrambled quietly up one of her legs, the small, skeletal beast leaping through her mane, making it spark faintly as the starlight and trapped night rippled around it and Luna laughed, then smiled a little when Sammy scurried onto her head and sat primly down, kneading at her glowing locks with his small claws. “Yes, yes, I know. ‘Tis not all bad. Thy head is full of thoughts now though, Scrivener Blooms… was sister’s letter truly so informative?”

“Celestia seems a little infuriated, to be honest, Luna… I can see it in her word choice, among other things.” Scrivy replied with a bit of a smile, glancing back down at the long roll of parchment. “I don’t think she suspected the Royal Courts to be so eager to go behind her back like this, and I don’t think she anticipated Sol Seraph to be such a… a threat. You know that despite everything, she does love you. She’s almost as protective of you as you are of everypony else.”

Luna grumbled a little at this, walking over towards him as Sammy chirped quietly from his place on top of her head, and then she nodded firmly, saying flatly: “Precisely! Listen to little Samael, there is wisdom in his squeaking. Did thou not understand what he said?”

“Please don’t put words in my pseudodragon’s mouth, Luna.” Scrivener sighed a little, rubbing at his face for a moment before Luna huffed and reached a hoof up to shove against his features, making him wince back a bit. “Stop that.”

She grumbled a bit, but relented after another moment of childishly pushing at his face, saying in a quieter voice: “It may be so, Scrivener Blooms, and I do care dearly for my sister. But both of us are aware that… Equestria must come first, and they would not handle the truth of what happened… of how even the mighty Princess of the Sun can make such awful errs… with the grace and dignity that we have. And we handled Celestia’s mistakes with very little grace and even less dignity, my beloved daydreamer.”

Scrivener smiled a little at this, nodding slowly as he looked back down at the parchment before he rolled it quickly closed, and he tossed this onto his desk after another moment, saying quietly: “Anyway. While I don’t doubt that it means Sol Seraph will still find some loophole or another to wiggle through and keep her current crackdown on Ponyville in place, I doubt she’ll press her luck any further than this.”

“Does thou truly think the curfew will stay in effect?” Luna asked curiously, and when Scrivener nodded after a moment, she frowned a bit and lowered her head forwards slightly even as the small pseudodragon grasped at her horn and nibbled quietly at her starlit locks. “Truly, the laws of Equestria are as convoluted, complicated, and obsessive as my sister always was… ‘tis sad that now, in attempting to prepare for every given situation, she has only created more bridges upon which criminals and vandals may dance. The old ways and the old days may have been harsh and heavy… but ‘twas much less chance of being sent to jail for bashing a brigand in those times than these.”

She sighed, then grumbled and looked up at the ceiling as the skeletal pseudodragon finally scurried off her head and jumped to the floor, the winged unicorn flapping her wings once moodily. “Come, Scrivener Blooms. Outside, and into the darkness: let us patrol the Everfree Forest for signs of unwelcome entities and loose our frustrations upon them.”

Scrivy smiled a little despite himself at her, and then he nodded and fell into step behind Luna. She flicked the door open with a grumble, but hesitated for a moment on the outer deck, even as Scrivener Blooms joined her with Sammy riding placidly on the male’s back, the winged unicorn gazing quietly out over the lawn and saying softly: “I remember once, we had a strange visitor here. A visitor I thought very little of for a very long time. A visitor I am sad will never visit this abode again.”

“I know, Luna. It’s strange, but I miss her too.” He smiled a little over at her as the door shut quietly behind them, then he glanced ahead as he walked out onto the lawn and headed towards the small bridge leading over the creek, saying quietly: “I guess Trixie really wasn’t lying when she said she grew on ponies.”

“Aye, perhaps she did not… even if she did undoubtedly tell many tall tales.” Luna smiled a little all the same, however, catching quickly up to stride side-by-side with Scrivener as she added quietly: “’Twas not the smartest unicorn, ‘twas not the greatest and most powerful, as she liked to claim, ‘twas certainly no great detective. But she was brave, especially in the end. The Velites still roam, but I am sure Trixie walks alongside my brother in the Vale of Valhalla… and oh, how they would enjoy one another’s company!”

She threw her head back and laughed, fearless in the night even as the forest loomed around them, but the stars faintly visible through the canopy of branches above twinkled quietly, as if in response to her laughter… and she shook her head slowly as Scrivener gave her a curious look. “Oh, come now, I have told thee often of Sleipnir, thou should well know his character by now. Yes, Sleipnir could find entertainment in everything… ‘twas a quality that frustrated Celestia endlessly. She was perhaps the reason I had never truly experienced ‘fun’ until Ponyville.”

Luna fell silent for a few minutes, looking ahead as they strode quietly along the familiar path through the forest: both Luna and Scrivy could see almost as well in even supernatural darkness as they could during the day, and without painful tingling from the sun’s harsh light. Then, as if she had never left off the conversation, she said softly: “Sleipnir was not as bright as Celestia… both figuratively and literally… and as thou knows, he was a colossus and boasted some control over the ground, but ‘twas not magic, per se. He was like a gigantic earth pony, while Celestia and I are winged unicorns… he was like the earth taught to laugh and fight, and oft he did both at once, but never with malice.”

She smiled a little, gazing upwards as she said softly: “That… last, fateful battle… he fought Fenrir with all his heart, and he brought down the mountains with his strength, Scrivener Blooms. And even as the avalanche came down, crushing the great wolf beast and my beloved sibling, he told Celestia and I to take care of one another, and made light of the situation even as Celestia screamed and I could only stare in horror and fear. He was courageous, and tender, and… good with foals. ‘Tis funny, the way we identify those important to us in the past as we develop, no? Once I would have told thee what made me proudest of my brother was that he was strong enough to crush an entire army, that magic bounced harmlessly off his body like the wind strikes uselessly against earthen cliff… and now, well. Now what makes me proudest of him is that he was always there to mediate between myself and Celestia… and he would have made a wonderful father.”

She smiled again, then both she and Scrivener looked sharply up as something ahead walked quietly into the path… but Sammy only gave a weak whimper, and both the winged unicorn and the earth pony lowered their heads quietly as the glowing white shape strode towards them. It was a spirit of a unicorn, almost intangible as it studied them with sad eyes for a moment, the air around it sparkling with frost as cold white mist rolled up from its glowing frame… then it turned and strode off the path, vanishing into the forest as Luna shook her head slowly. “Wretched, sad thing.”

“They’re bad omens, right?” Scrivy asked quietly, shivering a little… and it wasn’t simply at the awful cold in the air. “And there have been fifteen ghost sightings, just between you and me, in the last month alone. The Pales, as you call them… following in the steps of what killed them, or lingering because of unfinished business. What does it mean?”

“It means something is in the Forest tonight.” Luna said quietly, and Scrivener grimaced a bit before Luna suddenly veered off the path, following the trail of cold left behind by the spirit, and Scrivy winced but scrambled after her as Sammy whimpered and clung tightly against the male’s back. “Come, this creature did not cross paths with us for no reason. We will discover what it wants us to find.”

“Yes, let’s chase a ghost through the living forest in the middle of the night while a psychopath with minotaurs runs amok in Ponyville.” Scrivener mumbled, and Luna grinned over her shoulder at him, her teeth glinting and making him wince. “I swear you’re Pinkamena’s long lost sister sometimes.”

“Nay, but Celestia is little better, she is merely psychotic in a different sense.” Luna muttered, and then her cyan eyes narrowed slightly as she added mentally, the thought whispering through Scrivener’s mind as if she’d spoken: Communicate like this, poet. I do not wish to be caught unawares.

Scrivy grimaced a little, but he nodded, knowing he didn’t have to precisely think back at Luna for her to understand… and the two passed through the Forest making little more sound than a whisper of leaves against body and the occasional rustle of tall grasses, their hooves slowly, easily finding the way… before Luna looked sharply up as there was a loud, hissing scream, followed by a sick thud of breaking bone and flesh.

Then silence… but the forest had fallen still and cold, and Scrivener and Luna slowly, carefully made their way forwards, hearing their matching heartbeat in the terrible quiet, aware of every scrape, every sound, every breath… and then the sound of something being peeled, and a faint glow ahead.

Slowly, they made their way forwards, until they reached a narrow, gently-sloped bank… and there, beneath a glowing, crystalline lantern that was hanging from a tree branch, laid an enormous, dead manticore. Its segmented scorpion’s tail was broken, bleeding black bile as well as green poison over the mess of leaves and weeds it rested on, and its hide was speckled with blood, one limb still weakly twitching… but the creature was sadly, obviously dead, from the axe standing like a grisly trophy from its broken skull.

Sol Seraph sat in front of the creature, her suit gone in favor of a tight-fitting blue security vest with black cups over the shoulders, her legs covered by thin metal braces. There was blood splattered over her face, and she was smiling almost tenderly as she carefully laid out a cloth kit in front of herself, filled with various knives and sharp implements… and then, as she took a slow drag back on the cigarette in her muzzle, she murmured quietly: “I know you’re there.”

Luna and Scrivener remained silent, and Sol Seraph’s eyes flicked up, searching slowly around the perimeter of the embankment… but they were far beyond the dull glow of the lantern, beneath the cover of the trees and bushes. There was silence for a moment, and then Sol Seraph seemed almost to look at them even as she picked up a knife, testing the blade against her hoof as she said softly: “The face of a lion… the tail of a scorpion… wings and claws, but they are not without intelligence. But that only makes them all the more dangerous to hunt, and I enjoy a proper challenge.

“The claws are excellent for making arrowheads. The teeth for jewelry, or ground into fine powder and used in primitive medicine: the pelt is very thick, very durable, holds heat well. The poison in the tail induces paralysis and impairs nerve function, it can be refined into anesthetic or concentrated into a potent, lethal agent. And of course, the meat is very good, especially when properly prepared. They are strong, savage predators, and every manticore tastes a little different, reflecting their territory, and their success in life as hunters. Many ponies would pay much for the creature’s corpse. Many would pay even more if I sold them only the parts they wanted, without having to deal with the so-called ‘disgusting’ process of harvesting the necessities from the waste.

“But I am only interested in the hide and the mane and the wings… and perhaps some of the meat, if I have the room to carry it in my pack. I’m alone here, Luna, and I know it’s you out there… and probably your husband.” Sol Seraph smiled slightly, her eyes flicking back and forth as she rose the knife, the blade glinting dangerously in the dull light. “Are you afraid of me? Why don’t you come and kill me, like I know you want to? Or is it because you understand that I am a superior predator, and you are just the scared vulture, hiding in the shadows, waiting for me to be done with my prey so you can scavenge the remains?

“Still, I have more respect for you and your self-control than I do for the other ponies of Equestria… who would ask me to drag this carcass back to them, when it is my kill. When I am the one who has spent countless hours and many years training and becoming a predator from the prey-pony I once was.” Sol Seraph halted, looking coldly, calmly down at the knife… and both Luna and Scrivener watched silently, as behind her, the Pale, the ghost of the unicorn, slowly strode towards her back and stared down at her, pityingly, miserably. “I am better than them, I am superior to them. Nature and life are about survival of the fittest, the strongest… and I am the fittest, I am the strongest, and I will not demean myself by caring for the weak. It is the strong that survive, it is the strong that prosper… and even a filthy scavenger like you and your slave-hoof are stronger than those belly-crawling ponies of Ponyville.”

She stopped, then suddenly turned… but to her, it was if the Pale didn’t exist, the Pegasus leaning forwards into it and through its ephemeral body, her eyes narrowing slightly as she looked back and forth, the unicorn ghost only continuing to stand silently. “I know you’re there. I can feel it. I know you have questions, Luna, and I have all the answers you desire. But first I want you to prove to me you are strong… I shall even give you a knife. And with our lives in our weapons and our weapons in hoof, we shall plunge one into the other until one of us ceases to live, and then all your questions will be answered, and all my curiosities sated.”

Luna shuddered slowly, then she closed her eyes… before Sol Seraph turned suddenly towards them, flicking her wrist and throwing the knife in a hard snap that sent it spinning through the air. It gleamed, and for one impossible moment, Scrivener thought it was flying directly at them as if guided by some evil barbarian god… but a moment later, the knife sank into the trunk of a tree some ten feet away… and yet still far too close for comfort as Sol Seraph said quietly: “There’s your knife, Nightmare Moon. Tell me through your actions… will you be my predator? Or are you going to be my prey?”

For a moment, the winged unicorn breathed hard, shivering as she looked from the knife, towards the calmly, silently sitting Pegasus… and then she gritted her teeth and spun around, clenching her eyes shut as she threw herself into the forest and sprinted away, crashing through the trees as Scrivener winced… then recoiled Sol Seraph seemed to look directly at him, grinning coldly as she said softly: “Tell Fluttershy mommy’s coming to tuck her in one last time, once she’s done with you.”

Then Sol Seraph threw her head back and laughed as she stood on her hind hooves and seized the axe, ripping it free from the manticore’s skull as she rose it high, the unicorn ghost she couldn’t see still standing silently behind her… and Scrivener forced himself to stagger around, turning and sprinting after Luna even as he heard the sick, dull thud of metal biting into dead, still-warm flesh, cursing under his breath as he tore haplessly through the forest.

He found Luna by their old path, skidding to a halt beside her… and she spun around and seized him tightly, hugging him fiercely as he hugged her tightly back, the two shivering together in the forest path, both breathing hard in and out as the forest seemed to whisper and sigh around them before the winged unicorn said weakly: “Scrivener Blooms… I… I…”

But he only embraced her tighter, mumbling as he pushed their bodies together and grimaced over his shoulder: “Luna, believe me. After what I just saw, I don’t think I’m going to be able to wander around the Everfree Forest by myself ever again.”

Luna muttered in agreement at this, and then she pulled carefully free and grimaced a little, flapping her wings once before she started a quick trot down the path, and Scrivener winced and quickly fell into pace beside her as she said nervously: “Come, then, my daydreamer, let us not dally here. I do not believe the beast will follow us but… let us put distance between ourselves and the creature in any event.”

She shook her head quickly as they hurried back towards their home, the winged unicorn grimacing a little as she grumbled: “To think… Nightmare Moon, terrified in her own territory of that… that wolf. More and more I see why the minotaurs must call her by that name… she is evil. She is a monster… but perhaps this also shows our strategy is working. She is growing impatient, and challenged us to a game of death… and Horses of Heaven, to think herself a better fighter than me…”

“Or maybe she had some of those anti-magic crystals or something, and she was just trying to lure you into a trap.” Scrivy muttered, and Luna winced a little at this, giving another shudder as the male said quietly: “What terrifies me most is that this creature is so… so smart. And that unicorn… it…”

“I am not surprised to know she is a murderer. I would be far more surprised were the opposite true, in fact…” Luna shook her head quickly again, then she allowed her pace to slow a little, visibly regaining a bit of her calm and smiling a little, a faint blush in her cheeks as she looked towards Scrivener and said quietly: “I have made a fool of myself, Scrivener Blooms. Shown that even I… am fearful of the shadows in the dark at times.”

“That was no shadow in the darkness, Luna… and I still keep expecting to turn around and see her behind us with…” The earth pony grimaced after a moment, making a bit of a face as he lowered his head forwards, then he took a slow breath as he glanced up as Sammy whimpered on his back, clinging tightly down against his faintly-glowing white mane. “Oh what are you so scared of? You’re already dead.”

Sammy squawked as if offended, and then he nipped at the back of the pony’s neck, making him wince a bit as Luna muttered: “True, but I fear to think of what Sol Seraph would do with a trophy she could not kill. In fact, I fear much thinking now about Sol Seraph… and I wonder, too, what that unicorn’s connection to her was. I know thou felt it too, did thy not? ‘Twas not hatred, ‘twas not even anger… the Pale looked to her with pity in its eyes and stance.”

Scrivener nodded a little, looking down a bit… and then he sighed quietly, muttering as they crossed the small bridge over the creek: “Maybe it was… a friend? Can things like that have friends? Or family?”

“I wish that such creatures did but spawn out of Helheim, but sadly, they all too often seem to be born as any other pony is.” Luna replied quietly, shaking her head slowly and murmuring: “It is a hard truth… but I believe as some things can be born good… some can be born evil, as well, tainted with darkness. I know that I was tainted with shadows from my conception, however I came into this world… but… I am only glad that inside me there still glimmers a conscience. Or at least a love so deep of those I treasure that it has bred in me the necessity to act with goodwill.”

Scrivener smiled a little at this despite himself, glancing towards her, and she laughed a bit at the look he gave her as they approached the cottage before she simply sat on the lawn in front of the deck. The male paused at this, then he followed her gaze, listened to her emotions more than her conscious thoughts as her eyes roved over the comfortable, single-floor cabin of dark wood, and he softened as he leaned quietly against the tall winged unicorn, saying softly: “Yeah. It is beautiful, Luna. And safe. Like you.”

“Foolish poet, spare me thy flattery.” Luna smiled all the same, however, gazing at him with a bit of a blush before he reached up and nudged her gently, and she swayed a little to the side before glancing embarrassedly over her shoulder, murmuring: “Come though, Scrivener Blooms. The creature was all too close for comfort to our home… let us head inside so I may activate the wards.”

Scrivy nodded after a moment as Sammy chirped worriedly on his back, and then he strode quietly forwards as the door swung open, heading inside as Luna apprehensively looked over her shoulder, then gave a grim little smile before following, the door shutting behind her with a flick of her horn. Then she turned around, eyes almost glowing with her concentration as she gazed at the back of the door, and hidden runes etched throughout the wood in a spiraling pattern slowly pulsed into life.

They glowed quietly, casting an eerie radiance over Luna’s face as she stepped back after a moment, then nodded firmly to herself: as long as the ward glowed and was kept charged with magic, the cabin would conceal itself magically, becoming invisible to the mortal eye. It was one of several security precautions Luna had insisted on setting up throughout the cabin, even if they were rarely used: for most things, the Forest was more than enough protection and treated them as one of their own… but for creatures like Sol Seraph…

She shook her head slowly, then sighed a little and turned around, striding towards where Scrivener Blooms was resting quietly on the bedding in the den and muttering: “The creature was deep in the woods. Who knows how long that beast has been out there, and for how much of that time she has hunted, how many she has killed? ‘Tis terrifying, Scrivener Blooms… I do not believe Sol Seraph to be any normal Pegasus.”

“Well, whatever gave you that impression, Luna? The fact she eats meat, kills everything around her, or exudes so much malice it sent both of us running and screaming like little fillies even though we’ve been half-waiting for her to challenge us?” Scrivy asked dryly, and Luna gave him a flat look before she walked over and flopped half-overtop him, making him wheeze a little. “You know, one day I’ll finally be able to beat you up.”

“Doubtful, thou steals all my powers to perform thine own feats. Therefore I shall always be a step ahead.” Luna paused for a moment, then continued in a softer voice, as she absently played at the bedding with her front hooves: “And moreover, thou knows I mean something even different than that. Nay, she is not possessed… I wish that were the case, but I would sense a demon’s presence in the creature, or any other malicious spirit, for that matter. Nay, her body is that of a pony and yet… something about her… is simply so very wrong.”

She stopped, curling down a little against the male as Scrivener nodded slowly, sighing a bit as he looked towards the fireplace, then muttered: “Yeah. I get what you mean, Luna, even though part of me wishes it didn’t. Maybe we should go back out there, drop a boulder on her from the air or something and squash her flat. That would be fun.”

“That it would, Scrivener Blooms, but for one I doubt the creature will fall for such childish trickery, and for another, I will not allow the beast to scare me so greatly and bring my pride so low I resort to the tactics of a coward. For now, we are in a contest of wills… one I fear to admit that Sol Seraph has gained a momentary victory in.” Luna shook her head slowly, saying quietly: “But we shall be patient. We shall bide our time. She is like a shark in the water now, and the smell of blood is driving her into a frenzy. All we must do is wait for the opportune moment when she finally loses control. We will not allow her to lure us into a trap… we will not permit the foul creature to make us dance like puppets. We will not give in to her temptations of bloodlust or her vicious, sadistic scorn. We will wait until she exposes herself, until she attacks in desperation or rage… and then we will stop her. We must stop her.”

Scrivener Blooms nodded a little, sighing a bit… and the two only rested silently together until morning, cuddling close for comfort, their minds linked and heads often touching as they shared thoughts without words, images without context, wild imaginings and logical processions. Finally, Luna’s eyes opened, and she grimaced a bit as she quietly pulled herself away, Scrivener Blooms glancing up at her curiously. “Come, poet. Let us lower the moon and turn off the wards.”

Scrivener yawned a little, then nodded with a grimace, rubbing a little at his face, and together, the two went about their tasks. Luna drained the wards to allow their cabin to return to visibility, and then they made their way to the top of the cliff, sitting side-by-side and moving in silent time as Luna lowered the moon, her strength enhanced by Scrivener’s presence, affection and his own stubborn resolve.

They watched, sitting side-by-side, as the sun began to rise in the distance… and Luna shook her head slowly before she murmured quietly: “We must be careful, Scrivener Blooms. The predator is upon our trail… but what I fear most is not her wrath or rage or eagerness for the hunt… it is that she is the abyss. And to gaze into the abyss… it shall gaze also into us.”

“We’ll stop her, Luna. And we’ll stop her your way, we won’t become her.” Scrivener said quietly, and he gave a small smile to her as she smiled hesitantly back, nodding slowly after a moment. “Come on, I’ll fix you breakfast.”

“I wish to drown my sorrows in pastries and vast quantities of jam.” Luna mumbled, and Scrivy smiled despite himself, nodding as they headed down the cliff, heads down and apprehension whispering its way through their bodies as they both feared for the days ahead.

Sol Seraph was now running interference and delays on every security measure she had put into place: the curfew seemed to be particularly important to her for some reason, and she clearly lied about not having received any letter from Princess Celestia when she was summoned to a meeting in city hall. She had then calmly passed out several forms, saying in her cold, serious voice that any and all complaints could be addressed directly to her superiors and administration at the headquarters of Helios Mutual Holdings, and the security firm would hold an internal review… a process that would likely take six months.

She had also begun sending ‘interviewers’ door-to-door, saying it was all standard procedure: furthermore, she was refusing to acknowledge Celestia’s influence, and most of Ponyville’s council was too terrified of the Pegasus that had now occupied Ponyville through fear and force to stand up to her. Only Twilight Sparkle had tried to argue with her… and she had been forcefully shackled as Sol told her quietly she needed a ‘time out.’

Twilight had been dragged off to what was referred to as an ‘isolation booth:’ a large, cylindrical cell made of whitewashed metal and with a single small window in the sliding door, a vent in the roof of the cell releasing an occasional hiss of sweet-smelling fumes. She had been left for several hours, and whatever poisons they were pumping into the cell had played hell on her mind, making her feel weak and tired, talking without realizing she was vocalizing her thoughts… and then she had been dragged out of the cell to an interrogation chamber.

It had been brief: ten calm, gentle questions, and Twilight had answered three of them. Two about the Starlit Knights and their purpose, one about Celestia… but then her mind had begun to clear, and she had forced herself to stay silent. She had expected to be thrown back in the cell… but instead, she had been dragged outside the barn-turned-compound, and thrown rudely out into the road and told to ‘be good’ by the uniformed security ponies.

Twilight had made her way miserably back to town, sent a letter apologizing to Luna and informing her of what had happened… and in their cabin, Luna had gone into a rage for a little while, Scrivener muttering agreements with what the winged unicorn wanted to do to Sol Seraph even as he’d thought about what this all meant.

But they had gained information: even though Twilight’s recollection was fuzzy, they now at least knew what was inside the barn that Sol Seraph had so quickly purchased and put such effort into rebuilding and upgrading. Furthermore, despite everything, Sol Seraph had set Twilight Sparkle free instead of using her as bait… but Luna said quietly that only went to further show that the creature considered herself to be. A hunter, a predator: and whatever she was after here, she obviously was confident that she could capture it by herself… and arrogant enough to show off the power she now held, perhaps in an attempt to bring Luna to her.

They stayed back and patient, however, Luna and Scrivener Blooms spending the night mostly in their home and forcing themselves to focus on other things. Every now and then they traded letters with Twilight Sparkle, but mostly Scrivener focused on writing and transcribing notes and Luna quietly painted, the exercise soothing her bit-by-bit. Every so often, she would look up at a beautiful painting she had done of Scrivy that hung above the fireplace, and she would smile to herself: to her, the shadowy picture of the male in mid-run through a dark forest littered with black and white roses… she would never surpass it.

But now, she was working on something for Twilight, doing everything by hoof instead of using even the slightest hint of her powers, biting her tongue nervously now and then when she tried to fix a mistake or work it into the painting. It was hard work, but it taught her patience and discipline, and that the same pains and pleasures of battle could be found in the strangest of places.

When morning came, Scrivener Blooms and Luna lowered the moon, side-by-side, then made their way into the Everfree Forest: just over the bridge, however, Luna halted, and then grimaced as she looked towards a tree that had a large, straight cut lashed through the bark, the winged unicorn resting a hoof near this and saying quietly: “Keep thine eyes open.”

Scrivener grimaced a bit, looking back and forth… and then he grunted and approached a tree some ten feet away, touching it and examining another straight cut through the bark, and Luna nodded grimly. “’Tis as I feared. Our path has been marked by a pony… likely Sol Seraph. Or perhaps… she has marked this path for another reason, perhaps for those she works for. Aye, Scrivy, I remember as well what she said… but who knows what the truth is behind her machinations? The creature is sly and seeks to confuse us.”

Scrivy nodded after a moment with a grunt, and the two were silent as they made their way down the path, nervously looking every now and then towards the marks that were now all-too-clear on the trees. They formed a clear path along the half-hidden trail… and their worries about Sol Seraph were clearly confirmed when they found a strip of manticore hide pinned to a tree by an ugly, short knife near the entrance to the forest.

“The creature is mad.” Luna muttered, and the winged unicorn’s horn glowed before she yanked the knife free with a flick of her head, then tossed the weapon disdainfully into the bushes, letting the tattered chunk of pelt fall to the ground. They both looked at this for a moment, then quickly continued onwards, emerging from beneath the canopy of gnarled trees as Scrivener gave a shudder despite himself… before they both looked up in surprise as there was a loud crash in the distance.

They traded a look, then ran in the direction of the cacophony as yells rose along with sounds of clashing steel, both recognizing the sounds of what could only be battle as they sprinted along the edge of the Everfree Forest and then up a squat hill to gaze down in shock at the sight of Sol Seraph’s black carriage, and the Pegasus herself standing with minotaur bodyguards on either side of her as well as her unicorn assistant, the male hurriedly making notes as the vicious female calmly rested back in her suit and slowly smoked a cigarette. Luna and Scrivy both gritted their teeth… but without looking up or further acknowledging their presence, Sol Seraph said clearly: “We are handling the situation, Luna. Let the predators do their job.”

In the distance, a squad of minotaurs and ponies in black uniform were clashing with Nibelung and Velites: the latter were composed of the skeletons of ponies and other creatures, covered in runes etched into the ivory and yellow of their bones, often wearing shreds of clothing or broken armor and several with burning gemstones fused to their frames. They were brittle but difficult to kill… demonstrated by the fact that one that had been torn in half was dragging itself towards where Sol Seraph was lounging, before one of her minotaur bodyguards stepped forwards, raising a hoof and stomping down to crush in its skull in a puff of dust.

Luna looked sharply up, surveying the chaos: the security forces were pushing them back, but not without cost. The Nibelung were fighting savagely, and even from this distance, Luna could tell they weren’t bandits like the idiots who had captured Scarlet Sage, but tried and tested warriors. Several ponies lay bleeding and dead, along with a minotaur… and still, Sol Seraph only watched with cold, clinical interest before she said quietly: “Look at them. Fighting. Killing. Yet all so clumsy, so crude: they don’t know what they’re doing. I’ve heard, Luna, that you are known for your talents as a warrior… and I can clearly feel your desire to take the field, but I would advise you not to. This is not a place for princesses to play at being warriors. No matter how strong you are, understand this: my forces here are under orders to protect certain vested interests. I do not do this out of compassion. I do not do this to protect the weak. What this event before you comes down to is an exercise: the weak who have no place serving as warriors are being culled from the ranks by these mediocre opponents, and the strong will survive and prosper, as is fit.

“Do not try and protect them, when you are too afraid to protect yourself. When all that should matter is protecting yourself, your own interests, your own strength.” Sol Seraph slowly looked over her shoulder at the two, and she smiled icily as she flicked her cigarette out of her muzzle, making the unicorn assistant wince back with a yelp as it bounced off his face. “Perhaps your cowardice is a blessing, though. It means you’ll run faster… and I’ll get to enjoy the hunt longer.”

“Sol Seraph… heed my words.” Luna said quietly, stepping silently forwards and bowing her head as she took a slow breath, and Scrivener looked at her silently before he turned his own gaze forwards, the two looking down at the Pegasus as she gazed up with narrowed eyes. “Surrender, and leave Ponyville. This will not end well for thee if thou insists upon making war on me, for reasons that still are so unclear. Leave. ‘Twill be better for thee. For all that I wish to destroy thee… I must also prove that I am of worthier stuff than thou art. Leave, Sol Seraph. I grant to thee the mercy that thou fails every day to grant every other creature in thine own life, in the hopes that it will awaken thee from… this brutal, barbarian dream.”

Sol Seraph gritted her teeth, turning around and striding slowly up the hill towards them, her body radiating malice before she shoved Scrivener Blooms hard aside and pressed almost nose-to-nose with Luna, locking eyes with her as Luna glared furiously back, her mane sparking with electricity as the starlit locks snapped backwards, and there was silence as the two glared into one another’s eyes. A full minute passed, neither willing to break contact, both furious, the sense of rage and hate growing all the while… and then finally, Sol Seraph’s jaw twitched, and then she stepped backwards with a hiss… and slowly closed her eyes.

Luna breathed hard, relaxing slightly, leaning forwards with her teeth grit… and then grimacing as a cruel smile spread over Sol’s face, the Pegasus leaning forwards and saying quietly: “Yes… you will make an excellent opponent, won’t you, Luna? Maybe some of the stories are true… but you’re trapped in the old ways of thinking. Of believing that you have to protect those weaker than yourself, despite your superiority, and that is your flaw. Now, I’m growing tired of cat-and-mouse… and this only makes me more eager to test myself against you.”

“Then come and find me when thou art done with thy treacherous games, Sol Seraph, and I shall end thy life and cure thee of thy madness.” Luna said quietly, and then she turned and simply left, Scrivener following the winged unicorn after a moment, both ignoring the cold laughter of the Pegasus that followed in their hooves.

Slowly, they made their way back towards the path that led to Ponyville, and Luna grimaced a little as they fell into step beside each other, the female muttering: “Sol Seraph grows anxious for the battle, Scrivener Blooms, and I still worry I know too little about her. Perhaps Twilight has found more information, but… today we must spend researching and strategizing. I wish that we had the time to train the Starlit Knights as well, but… sadly, it is too difficult to wend our way around the monster’s machinations at this point in time. I can only imagine how enraged Applejack is, with her orchards full of security personnel running ‘inspections.’”

The male made a face, nodding at this as they made their way towards the village, the gates standing open and guarded by minotaurs… but the bipedal bulls only grunted and nodded to them, and even when a black-uniformed security pony began to open his mouth, one of the minotaurs simply slammed the butt of his axe into the ground in front of the male and he quailed immediately away.

The minotaurs treated Luna like she was one of their own: they seemed to recognize her warrior spirit, calling her Baba Yaga, a reference that made Luna laugh heartily. It was the name of a primeval entity, a guardian spirit with rule over the elements and life and death, a terrifying witch that devoured her enemies and aided the pure-hearted hero. A trickster and savior, it made Scrivy smile in amusement himself now whenever he heard Luna referred to in this manner: it was all too fitting a name for her.

And yet, for all their size, pride, and power… the minotaurs also remained in servitude to the monster they called volk: the few that had spoken a little about it said that they had no other choice, but never elaborated much. Nor could anypony get much out of Aleksandr and Ivan, even though the two no longer worked for Sol Seraph… they only muttered that it was bad luck to talk about it.

Scrivener Blooms and Luna made their way to the library, and spent the day there: with not only Twilight Sparkle and Spike helping out, but Fluttershy and Rarity also aiding their research and planning, they were able to get a lot done and cover a few important details that Luna had been worried would slip to the side.

Rarity, for example, ran a little more than just her boutique now: she made uniforms and was learning to weave gemstones and metals in ways that did more than simply accent clothing and style, but offered additional protection and armor. She also was slowly beginning to develop her skills with a forge, but much of her time was still spent some standing some thirty feet away from the ‘icky fire,’ slowly chewing on her lip as she hesitantly hammered metal into different shapes.

But it was a skill Luna and the others were encouraging her to learn and develop …and once Luna had gotten Rainbow Dash to prance around in the Wonderbolts-styled armor the winged unicorn had made for him, showing off the glints and gleams of metal, they had finally started to convince the unicorn to pursue this new path. Rarity had stared at the colors, the gleam of metal, the way the plates moved and how every shape had a purpose… and this more than anything else had been what had gotten her attention. The thought that working with armor could be just another big fashion challenge, just like designing a dress that would be both pretty as well as useful… she was just using metal instead of cloth, and the results were usually a little shinier instead of glitzy and silky.

Gemstones, however, were another matter entirely. Rarity was very, very good with working gemstones into any fabric, and she had begun designing a whole range of light armor, perhaps making them a little too showy at times, but always remembering to follow the same rules she did for uniforms instead of the stylish wear she still loved to indulge in now and then: workability, usability, and durability over flair and fashion.

So far, Rarity had assembled some twenty lightweight vests, styled in what she proudly called ‘gemstone scaling.’ The gemstones were cut to patterned shapes and thickness to interlock with each other and form a protective layer that was both snug yet flexible, allowing easy movement as well as ample defense.

Luna was glad to know that at least when the Starlit Knights were assembled they would have equipment to take with them, despite Sol’s interference and meddling… and then the winged unicorn had walked over to simply sit quietly with Fluttershy where she was silently reading. She had been surprised to look down and see it was a book on hunting and trapping… and after studying the Pegasus for a few moments, Luna had gently closed it in front of her almost-glazed, terrified eyes, and Fluttershy had looked up with a tremble before the winged unicorn had hugged her quietly and murmured softly: “’Twill be over soon, one way or another, Fluttershy. I promise.”

The female had nodded mutely, then looked down and whispered: “I hope you’re right, Luna. But… please, be careful. I’m scared for everyone… and the longer she’s here, the… the more I remember. The trophies she kept on the walls, the big house in Hoofston, cigarette smoke and… how she always told me I had to punish myself for being weak, so that one day I could be strong… how she always tried to make me strong, by… but… I couldn’t do it. I could never do it…”

Fluttershy shivered a little as the others gazed over at her quietly, and then she slowly stood up, shaking her head quickly and murmuring: “I don’t want… you to do this alone, though, Luna. I can’t fight her, but… I can still help you all, I have to help you all, in some way. You’ve protected me from her… from the thoughts she put in my head, from what she did to me, from what she tried to do to me when she first arrived.”

She stopped, then looked up with a faint smile over the gathered ponies, saying quietly even as tear rolled down her cheek: “I’m terrified, but I’m going to be brave. I’m going to prove I can be brave… that I’m not worthless. Let me help.”

Twilight smiled faintly, and then Luna reached up a hoof up and rested it quietly on the shoulder of the Pegasus, saying quietly: “And thou art helping greatly, Fluttershy. By keeping safe, by caring for the foals and putting on a strong face before them, and with thy selfless kindness… and thou art strong. Strong indeed, to have survived being raised by that monster… I cannot imagine how such a curse upon Equestria could birth such a blessing as thyself.”

“Mother always said… I was too much like Father.” Fluttershy smiled faintly after a moment, glancing away and whispering: “I think I’m glad she said that now.”

Luna nodded firmly… and for a little while, there was quiet as the group went back to research and strategizing until dark. Then, Scrivener and Luna headed out and to the gates, where a security patrol was waiting silently for them… but the unicorn in charge of the group of armored and armed ponies simply held out a letter to them, then motioned for the gates to be opened with a grunt and an irritable shooing gesture.

They waited until they reached the safety of their cabin to open the strange, rolled-up letter, sealed with a black crest… and inside, there was only a short promise, written in red ink in swirling, self-righteous script: The game has ended, and my hunt has begun.

They read the words, and then Luna and Scrivener Blooms looked nervously at each other in their dark cottage in the Everfree Forest, and not even the winged unicorn could repress a shudder as they pressed their bodies close together, the parchment falling in front of the fireplace and the promise written in blood-colored ink almost glowed with malevolence in the light cast from the blue flames.