• Published 3rd Oct 2012
  • 32,844 Views, 450 Comments

Pericynthion - Skystrider



While trying to escape, Nightmare Moon pulls something into Equestria that doesn't belong.

  • ...
23
 450
 32,844

Journey

Acrid smoke burned his nostrils as Ender struggled to open his eyes. Fighting back lethargic muscles, the soldier reached up to wipe his face. As the escape pod’s control console came back into focus, Ender noted a deep pain across his chest and legs where the five-point restraint harness had kept him securely fastened to his seat. It wasn’t unbearable - hopefully he had nothing more to deal with than deep bruising and soreness.

It could have been much, much worse. The ship from which his pod came was a military transport, not a civilian tug like the one that had brought him to Eros so long ago. During the Second Invasion, humanity learned the hard way that Formics had no taboo against shooting escape pods, so for the Third Invasion, the International Fleet had designed them to be modular. The new design enabled the pods to segment into smaller, self-sustainable units as they came under fire. The idea had been to save as many people as possible and fool formic targeting into thinking a pod had been destroyed when in fact only one or two of the mini-pods had been hit.

The design had saved Ender’s life.

He vividly remembered Nightmare’s face as she leered directly into one of the dorsal cameras and pushed his tumbling pod into a fiery descent. For all he knew at the time, the move would have successfully killed him; there was no way to tell if the attack that had vaporized his thrusters had also knocked out the separation mechanisms. The first indication that he might survive came when a bulkhead slammed down behind him, sealing in the foremost two seats as the lifeboat shuttered. Ender couldn’t see the remaining fragments trail behind him - the view from the cameras had cut off as his pod separated from the rest of the lifeboat. The nav computer was showing an ever-increasing descent rate before Ender blacked out from massive g-onset.

The soldier couldn’t remember what system the mini-pod used to slow itself. Was it thrusters or a parachute? Whatever it was, Ender silently thanked the engineer who designed it. Aside from a thin white smoke training from the control console, the interior of the craft was largely intact. Hell, aside from the deep furrows around the restraint harness, his dress uniform was barely disturbed.

Ender let out a sharp laugh at the absurdity of it all - the brief sound abruptly cut into the silence around him and informed the boy of a dry, sore throat. He should have been stepping off the transport into a milieu of reporters right about now. Getting used to them again was the entire reason he had put on his blues this morning.

This morning... was it even the same day? How long had been unconscious? How long had he been trapped in that dream world?

Suddenly the image of the strange planet rising over the lunar surface lept into his mind. Ender had been too concerned with staying ahead of Nightmare Moon to give it much thought as he fled, but now that he examined his memories, the continents had not changed into something recognizable as he flew closer to the planet. Every nav program on the pod had insisted he was holding course towards Earth, but his eyes simply could not reconcile what he saw with what the computer told him.

Where am I?

Ender struggled to unbuckle the harness, grateful that his craft had landed right-side up this time. He stood, noting a slight downward slope towards the front of his pod, and made his way towards the new bulkhead that had separated his mini-pod from the rest of the craft and saved his life. There was no obvious hatch, but after fumbling in the low light, the boy’s hand found a lever. He pulled, and a segment of the bulkhead fell away, revealing the dark landscape beyond.

The moon, larger than he ever remembered it on Earth, bathed an endless stretch of arid plateau in milky light. Deep cliffs fell away where the land cracked and tall spires of wind-carved stone held watch, casting long shadows in the silvery moonlight. Ender was amazed that he didn’t feel the vertigo he expected from seeing such an open sky. Perhaps it was the stars above that made him feel comfortable - he had spent much of the past two years in the simulator where a starscape comprised the primary background.

A line of fire blazed a trail behind the pod as far as the eye could see. The craft must have been trailing hydrazine gel from a remaining thruster, or else been coated with it when the lifeboat broke apart. Either way, Ender could see a path of destruction carved into the rock and scrub where the superheated metal of the mini-pod ignited the fuel and set the landscape ablaze as it skidded to a stop on the butte.

Turning back into the craft, Ender opened the storage compartment underneath the pod’s floor grating. Never in his life did he expect to use ground survival equipment, but now the boy was thankful he had at least half-listened to Lieutenant Dap’s hurried class all those years ago. Landing on a habitable planet after a battle in deep space was a one-in-a-million shot; something better relegated to film than actual military training. The IF, however, felt it needed to at least make a notional attempt at preparing their personnel for this eventuality. Ender wondered briefly if the soldiers of the Third Invasion, the ones now settling the recently conquered Formic worlds, had been better trained.

They had to know they were fighting near actual planets, he mused, maybe the short version was just reserved for us, the Battle Schoolers who wouldn’t actually be going anywhere.

In the compartment, Ender found two canisters, each nearly as tall as he was. Everything in the training referred him back to these... PACs? That sounded right. The admiral could not remember what the acronym stood for, but like most military abbreviations, it probably didn’t matter. The important part was the cache of supplies inside. The PAC held ground uniforms, provisions, temporary shelter, signaling equipment and weapons. Most importantly, the entire apparatus was self-powered through photovoltaic paint and kinesio generators. A small grav cell, similar to the ones that provided a starship’s artificial gravity, could reduce the effective weight of the PACs to allow even a boy like him to move easily while carrying one. Ender was strong, but he was still small, and the boost would be gratefully appreciated.

He took the first, swiping a hand across the control screen to power it on and extend shoulder and waist straps. Setting it aside, Ender stopped short as he noticed something while reaching for the second.

Three four-pointed starbursts were etched across the front of the large canister.

Looking down at his shoulder, and the three stars emblazoned on his epaulettes, he couldn’t help but wonder aloud at the IF’s seemingly obsessive level of preparation.

“No way,” he muttered.

Each lifeboat held twelve passengers, two in each mini-pod segment. Had they prepared special PACs for him, and placed one in EACH of the pods... on EVERY lifeboat? Considering that his transport had only carried two people, it was conceivable.

Sure enough, when Ender opened the second PAC, he found ground uniforms in his size. They were rugged camouflage affairs, as completely ill-suited to shipboard life as a spacer’s jumpsuit was to surviving outdoors. The thick leather boots fit perfectly. Ender had only recently procured new dress shoes for his blues; these boots and the PAC itself had to have been assembled within the past month.

Shaking his head, the admiral put on the camouflage. He was tempted to simply leave the dress uniform behind, but remembered an admonition from his instructors to do the exact opposite. Everything could be useful in a survival situation, and with two PACs, Ender certainly had the space and weight capacity. Hopefully he’d never even need bandages, much less run out of the ones in the PACs’ medkits, but the thought of cutting up the hated blues for that purpose brought a smile to the soldier’s face.

Donning the first PAC, he withdrew a sidearm, flare gun, and a length of cable from the second and affixed them to designated slots on the waist and shoulder straps. Ender figured if he dropped ‘his’ PAC, he’d have spares in the one on his back. The cannisters were bulky and cumbersome, but the grav cells did their job. The only inconvenience came from the younger soldier’s legs hitting the back of the PAC as he walked. Unfortunately, Ender wasn’t quite tall enough to meet the IF average. He briefly considered switching, and shouldering ‘his’ PAC, but a quick glance revealed that the one with stars on it was the same size - apparently the only difference between them was the contents.

He’d get used to it. With a deep breath, Ender picked up the second PAC like a duffel bag and stepped through the gap in the bulkhead. Making a circuit around the ruined craft to which he owed his life, Ender gasped in shock as he saw how close to death he had come.

The pod rested no less than two feet away from the edge of a nearly thousand-foot cliff. Ender could barely make out the bottom in the moonlight.

Skin crawling, the boy turned his back to the pod and withdrew his desk with a free hand, tying into one of the PAC’s power sources as he did so. He didn’t expect the get a navigation signal, but he hoped something might dispel his fear that he was lost on another world. Sure enough, there was no response from the IF satellite network, or even the old GPS and GLONASS constellations. The compass still functioned, though, showing that his pod had crashed towards the southwest. Lacking a map, he followed the trail of fire to the northeast for lack of a better direction. At least the glow from the burning fuel would let him walk without a flashlight and perhaps keep nighttime predators away. Hefting the greatly-reduced weight of the two PACs, the admiral made his way into the night.

Four hours of walking saw the moon set, but the sky still remained dark.

It must be midnight, or very early morning, Ender reasoned. The 1553 displayed on the desk’s chronometer was clearly incorrect. The soldier reminded himself to reset the clock at sunrise - it might not be accurate, but it would give him a reasonable estimate of the time.

Out in the distance, the boy could barely see the tail end of the long trail of fire left by his craft. Nearby, a few bushes burned, lit by the scattered fuel and heat from his pod’s passing. Grateful for the convenient fire, Ender drew close and set down one PAC to warm both his hands.

An exhaled sigh of relief caught in the soldier’s throat as two large golden eyes appeared on the far side of the burning bushes.

Ender remained perfectly still, half-remembered training and deep primate instinct telling him that predators keyed on motion. Inch by inch, a form revealed itself around the eyes as the creature moved into the light. At first, Ender thought it to be a bird as an eagle’s head and two impossibly large talons emerged from the shadow. The boy gawked first at the size, then at the rest of the animal’s form as it stalked forward. Brown feathers transitioned to fur around the chest, and as it turned to circumvent the fire, Ender could see the hindquarters and tail of... a big cat? His startled mind was hard-pressed to come up with a name, but at this point he didn’t much care. This thing was far bigger than he was and somehow managed to have claws, talons, AND a cruelly-shaped beak.

Grabbing his second pack, Ender thumbed the weight-reduction to maximum, power requirements be damned. Suddenly grateful for the hundreds of obstacle course hours forced upon him at Battle School, he took off into the night at a dead sprint.

The soldier’s blood turned to ice as he heard massive wings flap and begin to lift the predator’s impossible body into the sky behind him. A dread call, the strange combination of an eagle’s high-pitched cry and the low resonance of a lion’s roar, was magnified by an echo from the plateau. The sound drove adrenaline into his blood, bringing Ender’s thoughts and vision into sharp focus. He ran tangentially away from the line of burning flame. While it became harder for him to see, the admiral hoped that at least his form wouldn’t be outlined to the monstrosity behind him. Slowly, his eyes began to adjust - the moonless night sky provided an amazing amount of starlight.

As fast as he was, though, Ender heard the beast’s wings draw ever closer. There was no way to outrun it... he would have to fight. Spying a small rock outcropping, Ender dove for it, placing his back against the rock and setting his second PAC in front of him for cover. Drawing his sidearm, the soldier strained his eyes to get a bead on the rapidly approaching form.

Though he was an expert shot with training lasers in the Battle Room, Ender had no practical experience with real firearms. His first two shots went wide, and a third might have grazed the beast, given the roar of pain he heard, but it still didn’t prevent him from being knocked over. One PAC took the brunt of the impact while the outcropping above must have stopped the animal’s slashing beak. The pistol, however, was knocked from his hand, and Ender didn’t hear where it landed. Scrabbling against the metal cannister and the rock, the monster cried again and took to the sky. Suddenly, it dived behind Ender, well below where he thought possible.

Looking back, the soldier quickly realized why he didn’t hear the sidearm hit the ground. Another cliff fell away behind the rocky outcropping, and this time, he couldn’t make out how far it was to the bottom.

Ender briefly considered retrieving the pistol from the second PAC, but he doubted the predator would make the same mistake twice. Even if it did come at him straight on, he couldn’t see well enough to take a good shot...

Wait, he thought, as an idea came to him, I can’t see in this darkness...

The sound of flapping wings grew louder, coming from somewhere off to the side... and below. Ender was right - this thing was smart, and even if he had time to get the sidearm out of the other PAC, it wasn’t going to let him take another shot like his last. He could only hope his other idea worked.

Drawing the flare gun, Ender crouched down and covered his eyes with his other hand. He aimed as best he could towards the sound of the monster’s wings, and pulled the trigger.

Night turned to day, even behind his hand and eyelids. The boy could only imagine how painful the light from a magnesium flare was to a predator whose eyes were fully dilated for nocturnal hunting. Dap had said that the flares could be seen for hundreds of miles... the monster’s pained cries told Ender it was mere feet away.

The boy wasted no time. Ender holstered his flare gun, grabbed the second PAC, and tore off into the night as fast as humanly possible.

It had now been fourteen hours since he woke up in the escape pod, and Ender had no doubt left in his mind that this was not Earth. Forgetting the impossible creature he had left behind, there was no way the night could last this long in a subarctic latitude. Furthermore, the same moon had now risen again in a single night. The soldier was too tired to work the orbital mechanics in his head, but he had seen enough to know that either the rotational period of this planet was too long, or the orbital period of the moon above was too short.

Ender ate his way through a compressed meal bar to fend off any feelings of despair.

At least I don’t have to waste energy running the emergency beacon, he thought ruefully. That was another concern slowly creeping up on the soldier’s list of problems. While the highly efficient kinetic generators transferred the energy created by his movement into the PACs’ power cells, it was only enough to maintain a bare minimum of output once the batteries discharged. At some point, he would need the sun to activate the photovoltaic paint that provided the majority of their power. Without it, he’d barely be able to lift one PAC much less two.

As if on cue, the sun rose over the horizon. It wasn’t so much the timing that shocked Ender, but rather the way in which the bright star arrived. Instead of slowly lighting the sky, then finally emerging in the east, the sun appeared rapidly, shooting to a position fully ten degrees over the horizon before coming to a stop. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden daylight, Ender swore he could see a large beam separate itself and touch the surface far off in the distance.

Strange.

Dumbfounded. Ender stared for a moment before regaining the presence of mind to reset the chronometer on his desk. Manually setting 0700, the boy figured that even if a twenty-four hour clock wouldn’t work for this planet, he could at least time the day-night cycle. Ender then flipped through the PACs’ control settings to verify that both were charging - if this sun was so different than his own, who knew if the paint would even work correctly?

Thankfully, the green charge meter was slowly increasing. Making use of the new daylight, Ender set his desk to imaging mode and started constructing a map of his surroundings. Behind him, to the south and west, lay a vast desert comprised of high stony buttes and craggy scrubland. The cliff wall he had been following since the attack shadowed a river far below that meandered to the north and east. In the distance, he could see it drop into a deep gorge, not unlike the Grand Canyon he had often observed from the Battle School’s high orbit. This one was obviously smaller, but it would still make for difficult terrain.

Ender considered his options. He could bypass the gorge and stick to the flatter land, but as far as he could tell, the river was his only nearby source of water. The PACs, large though they were, only held a certain amount. Unlike food, water couldn’t be compressed, and it was far more efficient to store water purifiers than water itself. Even with a second PAC available, the boy knew he only had a day’s supply left, maybe a day and a half if he stretched it.

Alternately, he could follow the river in the opposite direction, but that was where he had left the predator. Who knew if it was still waiting for him, or how many of its fellows lived in the desert? Besides, Ender could see a belt of green far off to the north. The desert horizon only held red-and-gold mountains. Green meant water and possibly food... this was a pretty clear decision.

His mind made up, Ender begin to pick a path down into the gorge.

Steam from her sister’s bath curled around her as Luna stood quivering in the flank-high water. It took every last ounce of self control she possessed not to break down while Celestia’s attendant fussed with the elder princess’ raiments.

The day had been excruciating. After Nightmare had been annihilated by Celestia’s remarkable protege, it was all Luna could manage to simply stand on her own four hooves. She’d wanted nothing more than to be swept away under her sister’s wing to begin the long process of becoming herself again, but no, there was ceremony. There was always ceremony.

Intellectually, she had understood the need. There was still the Summer Sun Celebration to consider, and moreover, generations of ponies had lived and died without even knowing Luna’s name. Her sister needed some way of reintroducing the Night Princess to the world, and what better way than to be seen riding next to Celestia herself on a royal chariot?

Ponyville was manageable, though Luna thought the name to be dangerously quaint and mundane for a town bordering the last truly dangerous place in the world. The ponies were amazingly friendly, especially considering the terror wrought by her other self. The problem had been Canterlot.

It seemed to Luna that Celestia was picking up on her distress as the hoofmaiden continued working. The larger alicorn started using her own magic to help the maid remove the royal ensemble and hasten her departure. Luna watched as she recalled the painful return to Equestria’s capitol.

The young alicorn had initially been amazed throughout the chariot’s approach. Through Nightmare’s eyes, she had only seen brief glimpses of the city - all her other persona cared for was Celestia and the throne room. The capital had grown so much since she had last seen it; the city practically dwarfed the castle!

Just as the dark alicorn thought she could relax, Celestia had ordered the chariot to pass through the main gate. The resulting commotion was instantaneous - crowds formed along the entire route, filled with ponies desperate to get a look at their ruler after the unexplained and terrifying long night.

Celestia had offered apologies to her sister through teeth gritted in a broad public smile, one, Luna noted, that hadn’t changed in a thousand years. The young princess understood the need to reassure the citizenry, but it didn’t make the ordeal any easier. The Canterlot elite were far less welcoming than the Ponyville crowds, and it seemed like every third set of eyes viewed her with suspicion and distrust. Mutters rippled through the rows of ponies as they questioned her sudden appearance and nature. Her sister’s smile wasn’t the only constant in the world; the dark alicorn was sure that the modern nobility would be no more welcoming to changes in the social strata than they were a thousand years ago. A new royal, and an alicorn at that, would upend whatever system they currently enjoyed.

Luna had done her best to maintain a regal composure, not wanting to provide any more fuel for the rumors that were sure to follow, but the control was only skin deep. Inside, she was shaking the entire way to the castle. It had been the same inside the gates, all the way to her sister’s private quarters. Professional though the staff was, the fear and distrust behind their eyes was still evident. She was an interloper to a system they had built over centuries, no matter that Luna predated them all. To all the ponies surrounding her, she was the stranger.

Mercifully, Celestia’s garments were finally removed, and the hoofmaiden was on her way out. As the door closed, leaving the royal sisters finally alone, Luna broke down completely.

Sobs wracked her small body and she cried in both sadness and utter relief. Anguish, she could endure. Joy, she could embrace. But the strange mix overwhelmed her, and left the alicorn shaking in the steamy water.

In an instant, Celestia was by her side, enveloping her in a winged embrace. Luna expected questions; the sister she remembered would never let sadness or distress go unanswered. But time had apparently changed Celestia. Instead of prying she merely held her sibling, a calm, comforting presence to steady inner turmoil.

Luna was grateful for it; she didn’t think she could even speak, much less answer any questions coherently.

After a time, Celestia began, her voice soft and mellow amidst the steam of the bathroom.

“I am so, so sorry Luna. I wanted to show you to the city as my equal, riding with me triumphantly on our return. I never thought they could be so.. cold.” She sighed, and the barest hint of an edge crept into the Sun Princess’ voice. “I thought I had taught them better.”

The younger alicorn only shook her head. “N-No, Tia,” she replied with a shaky voice, barely containing the sobs that wracked her body, “‘tis nothing I did not expect. I-I...”

She meant to continue, but her throat closed off with a choked sob. Celestia only responded by holding her tightly, settling down into the hot bathwater and guiding her sister to do the same. Luna barely noticed the touch of her sister’s magic as she was moved into the crook between Celestia’s neck, forelegs and chest. So held, the midnight alicorn cried softly into her sister’s ethereal mane.

She wept in anguish at the realized passage of time since she had last been held like this. Only now did she fully see how much her sister had changed throughout the centuries of their separation. Gone were the last vestiges of Celestia’s youth; she had matured into the full bloom of their race’s adulthood. Luna could barely remember their mother, but was sure that the Sun Princess now bore a striking resemblance.

And Luna had missed it all.

The young princess also wept at the absolute joy it was to again be herself, free of the domineering and sadistic other that had been her companion for so long. Like a prisoner released after a lifetime of confinement, her mind reveled in freedom. Each free and private thought, once a rare and hard-fought luxury, was now a continual occurrence. The elation was almost unbearable, hence the tears.

But behind the maelstrom of emotions that wracked her body and mind, one vision, one clear mental image lurked. A bright plume of descending fire, stark against the beautiful blue-and-green globe of Equestria below, stood out in her mind, framed by the echoing laugh of Nightmare Moon.

The other had made sure it was a memory Luna would never forget.

Ender... burning alive.

“What’s wrong, Lulu?” Celestia ventured, finally pressing the question Luna expected from the beginning.

She wanted to open up, tell her sister everything that had happened immediately before her escape from the moon. But in looking back, Luna saw just how crazy the entire story seemed. She didn’t doubt for a second that it had happened, but how would Celestia view it?

A thousand years was a lot time to be imprisoned. Celestia was her only ally in this new, modern Equestria; she didn’t want her sister to think she was less than sane after the ordeal.

What’s more, Luna felt that if she verbalized it, telling the story of how Ender died at Nightmare’s hooves, it would become real. If it was only a memory, she could rationalize that maybe he had survived, somehow. But Celestia would never abide that... she would make her face it and let him go. Death was not something an immortal could linger on for very long, lest she become overwhelmed by its magnitude.

But Luna did not want to let go, at least not yet.

“I...it’s just too much to handle at once, sister,” she said softly into Celestia’s mane. “It is not all sadness, the joy is also overwhelming.”

It was mostly the truth.

Her sister did not answer, and merely wrapped the young alicorn in a silent embrace. They stayed that way for a long time.

The sun settled overhead as Ender began to pick his way down into the gorge. Though bright, it didn’t feel nearly as hot as he thought it would given the climate. For this the soldier was thankful. Looking down into the ravine, he didn’t think he’d be able to find a way down to the water before nightfall, and his own supply was dwindling faster than expected.

Untold years of erosion had eaten into the stratified rock of the canyon walls at different rates, leaving behind natural ridges where harder rock layers were left exposed. These made excellent, if narrow, passageways along the walls of the gorge. Figuring he would descend along these ridges as the opportunities arose, Ender climbed down to the first one and continued north alongside the river below.

The sun had moved about mid-way to the horizon when Ender decided to take a short break to sip water and check his desk’s chronometer. Unrolling the datapad, he was surprised to find that it read 1530. Given the length of the previous night, he had expected the daylight to last for approximately the same amount of time, but instead, the sun’s movement seemed to correspond to Earth norms.

It was yet another mystery that would have to wait for another time. His exposure on the cliff face and rapidly shrinking supply of water were more pressing concerns than strange rotational periods. Ender noted that he was only about halfway down the ravine’s side. If the sun was moving this quickly, he might not be able to make it to the bottom before night fell and made it impossible to find footing on these narrow pathways.

As Ender continued north and the shadows began to touch the top of the ravine, he noticed the red, gold, and brown sandstone slowly give way to hard gray slate. The ridges he followed were becoming few and far between, often forcing him to withdraw rappelling equipment from a PAC to progress between them. The lines were awkward to the spacer at first, but the general premise wasn’t too different from sliding the walls in the Battle Room. He just had to remember that a slip now meant much more than simply overshooting a target.

Ender was getting close to the bottom, though, and decided to try to rappel all the way down when a clear shot presented itself. At the moment, there was no bank alongside the rapidly flowing river below, but up ahead, past a turn in the gorge, the admiral could see the ravine flatten out into a gravelly basin.

There, he thought, relieved at the prospect of a night’s rest, that’s where I can draw water and set up.

Approaching the bend, Ender began to see a strange set of circular caves in the rock wall on either side of the ravine. Drawing to a stop, the soldier puzzled at their amazing uniformity. He had passed a number of caves on his way here, but these seemed almost... artificial.

The thought of danger only hit Ender as he heard a rapid slithering from behind and suddenly found himself thrown into the air over the chasm.

Before his brain could register what was happening, he found himself crunched into a ball, his legs almost drawn up to his chest. All around him, massive rows of teeth filled his peripheral vision as warm air, reeking of old meat and bile wafted across his back.

Ender’s first thought was that he was inside something’s mouth... and it was HUGE. His second thought was to wonder why he wasn’t dead. As his brain kicked into gear, Ender saw a large amount of daylight between the teeth and realized his predicament... the PAC he wore had stopped the thing’s jaws, and now it held him precariously in the air as it figured out how to bite down on this harder than expected meal.

The world spun violently between the jaws as the thing thrashed its head about, trying to dislodge him. Ender had no time to be afraid as his gut was wrenched first in one direction, then the other. The soldier did not delay. Hitting the quick-release on the PAC’s straps, he cut himself free and dove from the beast’s mouth, clutching the second PAC as he lept into thin air. The ravine looked terrifyingly different as Ender fell towards the river. Long, red bodies protruded from the caves and filled the boy’s vision. They were giant eels with jaws the size of a small car, and presumably, they came to see what kind of trouble their fellow was having.

Ender hoped he would be a small target as he fell towards the water. Holding fast to the remaining PAC, the boy fumbled for the grav control, trying desperately to switch it to maximum lift before he hit. He couldn’t afford to lose his remaining supplies, and he didn’t want the cannister to take him to the bottom of the river as he clung to it.

Teeth snapped shut all around him as he fell. Rebounding off the snout of one eel, Ender’s fall was broken as he skidded sideways into the water. Before he could react to the icy flow, his arms were flung apart as the PAC expanded and something snapped into his face. Thrashing his arms as he struggled in the current, Ender came up with some kind of line as he kicked for the surface. Holding fast to it, he felt himself pulled downstream in lurching bursts.

He surfaced with a ragged gasp, kicking hard to keep his chin above water. The line pulled again, and with a fling of his head, Ender saw that his PAC was now surrounded by a bright yellow inflatable tube. Multiple lines trailed from it, one of which he held with a white-knuckle grip. Hand over hand, the boy pulled himself toward the makeshift raft, careful not to let the current tear the lifeline from his hand.

Ender reached the tube, and with one last surge of strength, flung his upper body over the edge. The entire thing pitched up, thrown off-balance by his weight, and nearly upended itself. Afraid of losing his one means of flotation, Ender let go and merely clung to the line as before. The PAC and its flotation device settled back into the water, and this time, the soldier only linked an arm around the side of the tube. It pitched up a little with his weight, but stayed in the water, providing just enough buoyancy to keep the boy comfortably afloat.

The admiral caught his breath as he floated behind the PAC, watching the ravine walls pass by. The current was slowing down, but it had already taken him northeast, well past the gravelly shoals where he had wanted to camp. Already, the basin he had spied was behind him, and both sides of the river again rose in sheer granite walls without any kind of bank. Ender had no choice but to stay afloat and follow the course of the ravine.

His wits returning, the soldier suddenly realized what had happened to the PAC as he impacted the water. A squib switch in the bottom of the escape pod was supposed to release a life raft and the PACs in the event of a water landing. The tube to which he was clinging was the PAC’s flotation device, deployed automatically when it got wet. Had Ender remembered proper procedure, he would have deactivated the system as soon as he donned the PACs. Thankfully he had forgotten, otherwise, his impromptu liferaft would have sunk to the bottom of the river, possibly taking him with it.

Remembering his frantic attempts to adjust the grav cells on the PAC as he fell, Ender figured out why he had pitched it so easily when trying to climb on top. Working his way around the tube to the panel, the boy found that he had succeeded in turning the weight negation to maximum. As a result, the floatation tube, designed to hold the PAC at its default setting, was riding high in the water because it weighed almost nothing. Ender reset the controls, noting how far the PAC sunk as he did so. When the tube was half-submerged, he set the control and experimentally pushed himself up. This time, the PAC stayed put, allowing him to awkwardly flop himself on top of it, arms and legs splayed over the width of its encircling tube. It was uncomfortable, but at least Ender was mostly out of the water. Additionally, he found he could partially steer the PAC by paddling with his hands and feet.

Looking downstream, the soldier noted that the current was slowing down. In the dim light of the setting sun, it was hard to make out the tops of the sheer walls to either side, but thankfully there didn’t seem to be any caves, circular or otherwise. Ender didn’t fancy another ride in the jaws of one of those eels.

He was cold, wet, and alone, but he was alive - no easy feat considering the day’s events. Setting his jaw against the shivering he knew was on the way, Ender looked ahead, straining his eyes in the dying light to find a place he could land.

“Are you ready to try?” Celestia held a neutral countenance as she turned towards her sister, outlined in the crimson and gold of the setting sun.

Luna was thankful for the Sun Princess’ self-control. Any doubt or worry on her face would have made her far more nervous than she already was.

Neither of the royal alicorns could explain Luna’s sudden change in appearance after Nightmare Moon had been vanquished. Now, she was scarcely larger than when she had received her cutie mark. Thankfully, it still adorned her flank, but the loss of her ethereal mane and an overall decrease in her magical power was worrying both the princesses. An unspoken question hovered between them: could Luna still control the moon?

Luna dared not mention that her current form matched the one she had inside Ender’s dream.

The Night Princess strode forward, black-and-silver raiment glittering in the sun’s embers. As her sister’s star fell below the horizon, she closed her eyes. Envisioning the moon, her beloved moon, drifting in space before her, she bid it rise.

Heavy... it felt so very heavy, like she was lifting the moon’s entire weight with only her horn. Luna felt a magical aura emanate from her horn and diffuse across her entire body as she poured everything she had into moving her namesake. It budged, but only just. She cried out as the magic tension inside her snapped - a brittle pain resonating through her core.

In an instant, she felt the warm glow of Celestia’s power envelop her. The Sun Princess had not taken over - the moon remained in its place. Rather, her sister was simply supporting her, allowing her the dignity of directing her own spell. Luna was grateful for the consideration.

Within minutes, the moon had been set on its course, and the stars were in their rightful place. The Night Princess collapsed on her sister’s balcony, weary to the bone.

Celestia made her presence known with a soft nuzzle behind her sister’s ear. “Do not despair, Luna. I felt it - your power is still there. It will only be a matter of time before it returns fully.”

“How long?” The younger alicorn’s voice was a weak croak.

Her sister didn’t reply, and instead settled down next to Luna, extending a wing over her sibling.

The silence was as clear as any response. Celestia didn’t know.

Once he dried out, Ender found the night air to be warmer than he expected. The breeze still brought a slight chill with it, but it was nothing terrible. The river had continued on its slow course with little change. Towering walls of stone on either side prevented him from making any kind of landfall, so with no other options, the boy had flipped himself over on the PAC, partly to dry his front, and partly to try to catch a tiny bit of sleep. Floating like this reminded Ender a little of the one short vacation during his military career. Before taking him to Command School, Colonel Graff had brought Ender to an IF property in North Carolina. It was a sprawling vacation home with a small private lake. Still uncomfortable with open landscapes after years in space, Ender had spent most of his time floating on the lake in a homemade raft. The hills surrounding it formed a bowl of sorts, and the up-sloping land stayed the feeling of vertigo he got from open skies. The water’s buoyancy was also the closest thing to zero-g as Ender could get on Earth.

That raft had been a terribly gerry-rigged affair, but even it was better than the PAC. The ring of rubber tubing helped, but it was still impossible to lay comfortably on a large metal cylinder. Ender shifted, trying to ease the weight off his shoulder blades as he stared up at the night sky.

The boy had spent more time looking at the stars than most, but even he had to admit that this night sky was breathtaking. Though he could only see a small slice of it between the gorge’s walls, Ender marvelled at the depth of the field and the brilliance of the stars. When the moon appeared, it was brighter than he ever remembered it being on Earth. The boy tried to identify patterns on its face, but nothing would resolve itself into the patterns he knew. It was as alien as everything else Ender had encountered on this world.

Mind working on the spectre of the strange moon, Ender drifted into a fitful sleep, missing the shadow of a railroad trestle bridge has he drifted beneath it.

The stench woke him long before the pain and stiffness in his back. Ender nearly choked as the combined smell of peat, decay, and pond scum assaulted his nostrils. Jerking his hands out of the water, he found them covered in a thin green film as he sat upright on the PAC,

Looking around, the boy noticed that the water had slowed to a standstill, widening into a broad, vast bog. Frogs, at least he hoped they were frogs, croaked in the distance, filling the stagnant air with their ceaseless calls. Gone were the high stone ceilings of the ravine. Instead, Ender found himself under a canopy of broad, wispy trees that drooped nearly to the water.

Not wanting to tangle with any potentially hungry mouths below the murky green water, Ender slid off the PAC and made his way to the nearest stand of marshy earth. Thankfully, the bog was only waist deep, though the thick mud made the going difficult. Before long, Ender was able to climb out of the muck and, using a lowly bent tree for leverage, pull the PAC out of water.

A lack of movement and sunlight had all but drained the PAC’s power supply. The grav cell still maintained a small output, but Ender was forced to shoulder the majority of the cannister’s weight as he heaved it to dry land. Detaching the flotation tube, he patted the rubber gratefully before tossing it to the side. Much as it might be useful in the future, the PAC was going to be ungainly enough for the time being. Ender doubted he could manage the tube as well; he had no idea how to deflate it, or if it was even possible to do so without destroying the device.

The boy grunted as he shouldered the cannister. It would take awhile for his movement to charge the kinetic generators, and even then, the PAC would be running on minimal power until he could find good sunlight. Looking out over the broad expanse of dim marshland before him, Ender sighed as he anticipated an intense leg workout in his near future.

Four months later...

Luna sighed in frustration as she soared over the dark expanse of the San Palomino Desert. Tonight would be no different than the night before that, or the one before that, or every night since her return to Equestria. The Night Princess didn’t know why she kept doing this to herself, hoping for something, anything, only to be disappointed time and again.

The alicorn thought by now she would have found something.

The Night Guard, puzzled by their liege’s continual forays across the land, offered their assistance every night as she departed, and every night, Luna turned them down and bid they remain at their posts. Loyal though they were, she didn’t want the true purpose of her ventures to be revealed to her sister. Let Celestia believe she was simply “reacquainting herself with the night,” as she claimed every time she was asked.

Luna still wasn’t ready to admit he was dead, not until she found some sort of proof.

Deep in her heart, the princess knew that it was a futile effort. Equestria, the planet, was massive, and the ponies’ continent only comprised about a third of the total landmass. Ender’s craft could have easily crashed in Griffonia, or worse, the dragons’ aeries. He could have fallen in the unexplored desert wastelands on the far side of the globe. Or, given the vast size of the world’s oceans, the highest probability was that he crashed into the sea and was forever lost in the unreachable depths.

And yet she searched. Luna had to know.

The Night Princess had started small, as she was still getting used to her temporarily juvenile frame. Her wings wouldn’t carry her very far initially, which limited her nightly jaunts to the areas around Canterlot. As her body began to grow, slowly reaching its stature from before her imprisonment, Luna’s power started to return. Over the past month, she had been able to add long-range teleportation into her flights, picking up the search from where she left off instead of having to waste valuable time transitioning over ground she had already covered. The slow return of her strength had helped immensely; in the past two weeks alone, she had been able to search the entire north from Vanhoover to Manehatten. On a whim, she had even traversed the Crystal Mountains to see if there was any vestige of the Empire, but it was to no avail... Sombra’s realm remained hidden.

Luna bypassed the various towns and villages that dotted southern Equestria. Had Ender crashed near one of the townships, Canterlot would have surely heard about it by now. That left the broad southern deserts and mountains, and of course, the Everfree.

How she would search the forest was a question Luna would need to answer eventually. The dense and quick-growing foliage would quickly cover any scar left by Ender’s craft as effectively as it would prevent her from searching from the air. Of course, she could enlist her Night Guard to scour the Everfree, but that would surely invite questions from Celestia.

The Night Guard... it still amazed Luna how quickly her sister had integrated her into palace life. While the whole of Canterlot was still coming to terms with the fact that the legendary Nightmare Moon was actually the sister of their beloved Sun Princess, the palace staff had quickly fallen into line when Celestia made it clear that Luna was her equal in every way but age, and that she would be resuming her duties as soon as her recovery permitted. At first, few had volunteered when Celestia sought to recreate the Night Guard, but after a quick demonstration of how Luna’s magic adapted pegasi to night-time operations, quite a few Royal Hussars stepped forward to receive the bat-like wings and tufted ears capable of picking up the slightest of vibrations in the night air. The Guard had served her remarkably well, and she hated keeping them at hooves’ length on this matter.

Wait... what is that?

Luna chastised herself as she realized that her musings almost made her miss something that didn’t belong on the arid landscape below.

A black scar, starkly visible under her silver moonlight, ran parallel to the Palomino River. The princess’ heart leapt into her throat as her mind worked through all the possibilities of what might have caused it. It was too shallow to be an earthquake fissure, not that there had been a natural earthquake in Equestria for centuries. The gouge ran perpendicular to the existing slopes and cliffs of the surrounding mesas - that ruled out erosion, and it was far too narrow to be the result of an avalanche.

Excitement and dread each tore at Luna’s chest. Swooping low, she flared her wings to settle at the northern edge of the scar. In an instant, the alicorn was standing over the fissure, examining the rock and surrounding vegetation.

Her eyes confirmed what they had seen from far above - this was not natural. A quick pulse of her horn into the surrounding ether told Luna that this wasn’t the result of magic, either. In addition to being gouged, the rock had also been burnt, and a dark film indicated that the scorching wasn’t the result of wildfire.

Luna’s heart rate increased as she took to the sky and sped along the length of the scar. A minute’s flight to the south saw her heart nearly stop as she spied a chunk of blackened metal resting near the gouge. The alicorn thudded into a hard landing as she drew up to the twisted wreckage. With a horrified gasp, the princess realized that it was a small part of the larger craft she remembered.

Did his ship disintegrate?

Taking to the air again, the Night Princess remembered the plume of fire that had plagued her dreams for months. It was the very reason she had refrained from providing pleasant dreams to her subjects as she had in the past; Luna worried her own nightmares would be inflicted upon other ponies.

Without delay, the alicorn sped on, ignoring other bits of wreckage until she saw the very end of the long cut in the earth. There, shadowed in her moonlight, lay a large remnant of Ender’s craft.

She almost turned back. Knowing would probably be worse than wondering... whatever Luna found here would answer her question once and for all.

Approaching the dark shape, the princess felt a small light of hope growing inside her. Whatever it was, it looked almost intact, and part of the exterior had fallen away as if somepony had opened it. Stepping inside, Luna summoned a ball of light to the end of her horn, illuminating the interior with a bright azure glow. Casting about her memory, the princess began to recognize the front end of the craft by the chairs and console before her as she had seen them through Ender’s eyes.

The memory brought back a wrenching sadness to her heart. He brought me with him and let me stay in his mind, just to save me from her. He helped me stay... showed me how to hold my own against her.

Had he not done that, would I have been able to sabotage Nightmare’s attempt to kill Celestia?

But he wasn’t here. Luna fought back tears as she walked around, observing the wreckage, especially the damage to the outside of the craft’s remains. The miles-long gouge showed how much force Ender’s ship carried when it crashed. She couldn’t imagine anyone surviving such an impact.

But where was his body? If Ender died here, she could at least lay him to rest... physically and in her mind, as her kind did with all they outlived. It was the least she could do for him.

Only then did Luna notice a set of tracks surrounding the craft, and long talon-marks in the metal of the hull.

Griffons - two of them by the looks of it.

The Princess of the Night saw red as her mind worked through the implications. According to her sister, Griffonia had been at peace with Equestria for centuries. It was no secret that the predator species ate meat, but many, many treaties ensured they only did so in their own lands, and that they never partook of any of the sapient races in Equestria.

Griffonian citizens held strongly to these laws - it was a matter of honor. But griffon exiles were another matter entirely, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to take up residence and poach in Equestria’s many unsettled territories.

She could only hope that the crash had killed her friend. The thought of him surviving only to be taken by poachers was horrifying.

To be sure of Ender’s death was one thing, but to know that he had been... food... for these beasts... that was simply... simply...

An anguished cry rent the night air. Heard as far away as Los Pegasus, it woke ponies young and old and was soon followed by the first earthquake felt in Equestria in generations.

Luna never turned to look as the earth cracked along the fissure created by Ender’s craft. Lifting the hoof she had just slammed into the ground, the alicorn took to the air, casting about for the campfires of the Griffon exiles she now knew to be in the region. Had anypony been there to observe her, they would have been struck speechless as her cerulean mane and tail shifted to take on the color and pattern of the night sky above.

A slight vibration woke Ender from a restless sleep. As his eyes shot open, he immediately scanned his surroundings for any sign of a threat. The soldier paid close attention to the tree in which he was sleeping - vibrations usually meant something was climbing up to eat him.

The past few months had not been kind to the former admiral, who was now sorely wishing he had followed that damned river south instead of north. Better the open desert and a known threat than this endless wood where a new danger seemed to leap out from the dense overgrowth at every turn.

The marsh had been bad enough. After days of trudging from bank to bank through the seemingly endless muck, yet another improbably massive creature had erupted from the bog, surprising Ender and driving him in a headlong flight into the woods where he was now trapped. Thankfully, he had been in an open area of the swamp where the sun’s light had kept the PAC charged, otherwise the soldier would have been forced to choose between abandoning his supplies and getting eaten by the four-headed monstrosity. Like many of the other creatures he had encountered on this strange world, Ender was sure this one had been mentioned somewhere in mythology, but he never got the chance to look it up on his desk - the boy was simply too busy with the day-to-day demands of survival.

Ender smiled ruefully at the memory of escaping the four-headed lizard. Looking back from well behind the tree line, he had thought he was safe since the beast couldn’t fit between the massive trunks and the thick underbrush. The soldier couldn’t have been more wrong.

Oh, he was safe from that particular monster, but not the countless others that awaited him inside the woods. After the first few attacks, Ender simply assumed that everything was out to eat him. Had it not been for hundreds of hours honing his reaction time in the Battle Room, the boy was confident he wouldn’t have survived that first week in the forest, much less the first month.

Now his life had devolved to a simple hierarchy of needs: stay alive, find food, keep the PAC charged, and try to escape the wood. Even with all the monsters arrayed against him, Ender found the last one to be the most troublesome. It took him a month to learn that the desk’s internal compass simply didn’t work inside the forest. It slowly precessed, changing magnetic north at an imperceptible rate. Of course, in the trackless wood, it was almost impossible to tell this. It wasn’t until Ender had camped next what he thought was an east-west stream that he saw the discrepancy; in the morning, his desk said the stream ran north-south. To add insult to injury, experimentation later proved that the rate of precession wasn’t constant and didn’t seem to follow any pattern. Ender couldn’t even write a program to correct for it.

When all was said and done, the soldier figured he had wasted at least five to six weeks wandering in circles, following the errant compass. Since the forest canopy tended to block most of the sunlight, the boy was forced to climb high enough to catch the sunrise in the morning and the moonrise every night to reorient his sense of direction. Between that and sleeping in trees to avoid predators, Ender became very good at tree climbing.

Food was his next largest challenge. In spite of careful rationing, the soldier consumed the PAC’s supply by the end of his second month. The survival guide stored on his desk was extremely helpful when it came to identifying edible plants... assuming those plants were on Earth. Luckily many of the same rules applied to the vegetation found in these woods, save for one set of blue-ish berries that left the boy sweating in a feverish delirium for days. Had he not lashed his body and the PAC to a tree as he felt the onset of symptoms, Ender was sure that he would have either blundered off a cliff or straight into one of the forest’s many mouths.

Hunting proved far less successful an endeavor. Ender still had his spare sidearm, but wanted to conserve his limited ammunition for self-defense. It wasn’t until he had stumbled upon a wild chicken that the boy allowed himself the luxury of shooting a meal.

Sure enough, like everything else in this cursed forest, the chicken proved to be something else entirely. It had the lower half of a snake, and even after he had removed the reptilian parts, Ender found the rest of the chicken to be completely alien when compared to his desk’s guide to preparing wild fowl. He threw the whole thing away, not wanting a repetition of the blueberry fiasco. There weren’t many spare pairs of pants left in the PAC.

Now he lay lashed to a tree, breathing slowly in an effort to hear whatever had shaken his perch. Almost every night had been the same - hanging on the knife edge of sleep, waiting for the next sound or vibration to herald the approach of yet another terror from this wood. Sometimes Ender swore that even the trees had teeth-filled maws, just waiting for him to let down his guard.

The sooner he was out, the better. With his crude solar and lunar reckoning, Ender had a basic estimate of north. So long as he stuck to a heading, this wood had to end eventually... he hoped.

“Luna, are you there?” Celestia’s voice was calm and clear, but even through the door, the dark alicorn could hear an edge of worry.

She didn’t answer. After the disaster that had been her encounter with the Griffonian ambassador, Luna didn’t want to see anypony until the event was long-forgotten. Perhaps she could hold out for a few decades... long after the parties involved had all passed away. Equestria had done without her for centuries, what could fifty years hurt?

There was a sound of light clanking as the Night Princess heard her guards depart. Had Celestia dismissed them?

“Sister,” Celestia’s voice was softer this time, as if she didn’t want others to hear, “you’re scaring me. It’s been a week now, this is... this is just like last time.”

Her elder sister’s voice nearly cracked at the end.

Rushing forward, she flung open the door. “No! Tia, ‘tis not like that, it’s just...”

Luna blushed, realizing that her outburst, fueled by the need to keep her sister from thinking along THOSE lines, had echoed down the hall. In the distance, she saw two maids freeze and turn in her direction.

“...’tis embarrassing,” she finished quietly, beckoning Celestia inside her chambers.

The white alicorn touched her horn to Luna’s in a comforting gesture as she entered, closing the door behind her.

“It wasn’t THAT bad, little sister. Give it a few years or so, and we’ll have a new ambassador. All will be forgotten.”

“I made Ambassador Stormwing wet himself.” Luna deadpanned, not believing her sister’s assurances.

“Well, maybe we will have to wait for a few more ambassadors to hold office before they forget everything.”

“He wet himself... in the middle of court... and griffons do not wear pants.” Luna couldn’t believe her sister’s nonchalance.

Celestia smiled. “Good thing the floors are tile instead of carpet, then.”

Luna just stared.

After a second, both sisters burst into gales of laughter.

“Ok,” Celestia acquiesced, “I’ll admit... every Griffon ambassador from here to eternity is probably going to be briefed about you, and you specifically, before assuming the office. But really... there are worse things in this world.”

Luna sighed. “It is not just Griffonia I am worried about. I am sure the story is all over Canterlot by now.”

“So?” Celestia put a foreleg around her sister’s shoulders. “It’s good for them to know that one of their rulers isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.”

The younger alicorn pulled back, almost violently. “So you want them to fear me... again?!”

The Sun Princess was genuinely hurt. “No, of course not! I-I didn’t mean it that way! Never again, Luna...”

Narrowing her eyes, she replied, “Then what did you mean?”

Celestia lowered her head before responding, then looked up beneath a furrowed brow, straight into her sister’s eyes.

“I’ll be the first to admit: the nobility has grown... soft. They only care about frivolities, and they can afford to do so because nothing truly bad has happened to them for a very, very long time.”

Raising her head, the white alicorn moved towards her sister, regarding Luna with with a proud gaze.

“For the first time, in a very long time, you brought something important to court. Griffonia has danced around the topic of their exiles for years, and you held their talons to the fire.”

“But,” Luna interrupted, “all I did was publicly embarrass our closest ally in the Griffon court, and I did it out of anger. I-I was not thinking...”

Celestia shook her head. “Like you said, those griffons killed an intelligent being. While your reaction wasn’t... optimal... it could have been a lot worse, Luna. I’m very glad that you didn’t find those poachers that night. Had you taken action against them, justified though you were, it could have become a bad situation politically. Instead, now the griffons are being forced to address the problem themselves, and I think that will better serve both our nations in the long run... soiled tile notwithstanding.”

Luna couldn’t help but smile at this, and returned to her sister’s side. Celestia nuzzled her affectionately.

“I am sorry, Tia.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

A few moments of silence passed between the royal alicorns.

“I know you said it wasn’t a pony they killed - thank goodness - but I was wondering... if it’s not too painful, what did those exiles take? Is there a family I need to comfort?”

Luna only shook her head, an answer to the latter question but not the first.

She still wasn’t ready to tell the story.

Five months later (nine months after Ender’s landfall)...

He was down to his last set of camouflage. Of all his worries, clothing was absolutely the last one Ender thought would rise to the top of the list. When he had first opened his PAC and discovered five sets of the mottled fatigues, the soldier had thought it excessive. Now he was extremely grateful for the over-preparedness shown by whoever had outfitted the kit.

The first set fell victim to the bog and the four-headed monster all those months ago. Even if one of the beast’s jaws had not grabbed hold of his collar and torn the blouse from his back, the multiple layers of caked mud would have rendered it unserviceable anyway. Set number two had lasted the longest; it took nearly six months for the boy to wear holes into the knees and elbows of the uniform. The acidic spit and blood of a horned, fast-running lizard had finally done them in. So much of the camouflage had been dissolved during the encounter that Ender didn’t bother trying to repair the uniform. The fatigues became bandages, one of which he still wore around a gashed forearm.

The third set saved Ender’s life. After a nasty fall into a hidden stream, the soldier had tried drying out around a fire. The fatigues, hanging together from a tree, had looked sufficiently lifelike to fool a bear. Instead of attacking him after charging out of its den, the animal had instead gone after the suspended uniform, giving Ender just enough time to escape deeper into the trees. Shaking his head, the soldier had to laugh at the image of himself tearing through the brush in just his underwear and boots. No wonder nothing else had come after him that day - the sight was too ghastly.

The fourth uniform had lasted until only a couple weeks ago when, amazingly, it had been ruined by milk. Ender still couldn’t quite believe it.

He had been laid up in a tree for weeks, fighting off a horrible fever. As best the soldier could figure, it wasn’t a case of food poisoning this time around, and he hadn’t been stung or scratched by the local fauna. That left a run-of-the-mill virus or bacteria as the cause, but whatever it had been, it’d thrown Ender for a loop. After the first five days, he had been too weak to even reach over to the PAC for food and water.

The rain of chocolate milk had been nothing short of miraculous. Cool and refreshing, it sustained the boy in his weakened state. Through the haze of his fever, Ender recalled seeing the strangest sights. Day and night seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, and he could have sworn that the trees around him tore themselves out of the ground and walked about on their roots. It was amazing, really, what a feverish mind could create.

Upon regaining his senses and finding the world around him to be quite normal, the soldier was about to dismiss everything he had seen as delirium until he realized that his uniform reeked of old milk... old, chocolate milk.

Ender didn’t even want to try figuring that one out. Suffice to say, the fourth set was unsalvageable. It took days of bathing to get the smell off his body - there was no hope for cloth that had been marinating in it.

So, outfitted in his final set of fatigues, the soldier shouldered his PAC. Sidearm at the ready, he set off towards a recent discovery that gave him a tiny amount of hope.

Ender had found a path through the forest.

Luna stood outside the royal dining hall, dreading what awaited her on the other side of the double doors. The Night Princess’ first foray into the outside world since her return had gone... differently than expected. While there had been no repeats of what the Canterlot elite had dubbed “The Griffon Incident,” Luna had still been wary of interacting with the public on a large scale. Instead, she had kept to her tower, spending the nights catching up on a thousand years’ worth of missed laws and records, much to her sister’s chagrin. After the Discord debacle, Celestia had all but thrown her out of the castle, insisting she reconnect with her subjects in some fashion “before we get hit by another disaster.”

Nightmare Night had proven... troublesome, but again, Celestia’s prized protege had seen fit to help her. It was a good thing that a little social coaching did not require a blast from the Elements of Harmony. Twice was more than enough for one lifetime, eternal though it may be.

The problem was that Luna heard tittering behind the door, and she was sure that a letter from Twilight was the primary cause.

She sighed. Celestia would never let her live this down.

Luna didn’t even have time to catch her breath as she opened the doors to the dining hall.

“The Royal Canterlot Voice... really?” Celestia still had the letter open in front of her.

Luna only glared. “You could have TOLD ME that it had gone out of style. There I was, my first time alone in public, yelling like an idiot because I thought it was proper manners.”

“I didn’t think I needed to!” Celestia was still laughing, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “Have you ever heard me use it here?”

“You said yourself that Canterlot has become soft!” Luna shot back. “I thought you were just coddling them... saving their delicate ears! These were peasants... of course I thought it only proper to use the Voice.”

Celestia’s eyes widened as she laughed even harder. “Lu... we don’t HAVE peasants anymore. I thought you were brushing up on the law books every night.”

The young alicorn narrowed her eyes. “I AM, and that is a fact of which I would have been aware had SOMEPONY bothered to update them once every few centuries!”

Celestia blushed sheepishly.

“Alright, you’ve got me there... you always were the better book-keeper.” Levitating her plate towards Luna, she offered up its contents. “Would my crepes be enough of an apology?”

Luna snorted. “Throw in the chocolate chip muffin, and we MIGHT have a deal.”

The first light of dawn touched the forest as Ender made his way down the poorly-maintained path. It did not bring much brightness though, as the dense canopy kept most of the sunlight from reaching the forest floor.

At the moment, all the light in the world wouldn’t have comforted the boy. The young soldier was being tracked, and he knew it. Ender was no hunter, but he had set enough traps for his adversaries in the Battle Room and in the simulator to know when he was being corralled and sent down a route desired by an enemy. It had been little things that alerted the boy - a felled tree across one fork in the path, strange noises from behind to spur him on, and finally, moving shadows between the trees to keep him on the relatively clear trail.

Ender was being hunted, and that scared him more than any of the monsters he had previously encountered . There was an intellect at work here. Everything else had either relied on surprise and ambush, or simply used brute force to try to overwhelm him. This was different.

Looking ahead, Ender spied a small clearing through a break in the trees. Listening carefully, he noticed something was off - the forest was deathly quiet. The birdsong and animal calls that usually filled the air were conspicuously absent.

The clearing ahead was a seemingly safe place - the perfect spot for a trap. If he were the hunter, Ender was sure that’s where he’d lie in wait.

As silently as he could, Ender crawled up the nearest tree he could find. There were only two options when you knew a trap was set for you. If you were strong enough, you could spring it and exploit your knowledge of the enemy’s location while simultaneously removing their element of surprise. If not, you avoided the trap at all costs, or attempted to set one of your own.

Without knowing what stalked him, Ender had little ability to set a trap, but at the very least, he could try to spot his adversary before it attacked. The solder set himself on a branch, PAC braced against the trunk, and kept watch down the path. Drawing both his sidearm and the remaining flare gun, Ender slowed his breathing, trying to hear anything over the pounding rush of blood in his ears.

He didn’t have to wait long. Before his legs even had the chance to tire from squatting on his perch, the entire tree rocked violently, throwing Ender from the branch.

The soldier flailed as limbs broke beneath him, buffeting his ribcage and solar plexus while slowing his fall. Ender landed in a contorted heap, gasping at the base of the tree. Thankfully, he had set the PAC’s grav cell to maximum while climbing the tree, otherwise it would have crushed him.

Before he could even get to his knees, the soldier was knocked sideways as he heard the screech of claws scraping across the surface of the PAC’s metal surface. Knocked bodily into another tree trunk, Ender lost his grip on the sidearm and heard a rasp as it skidded across the leaf-strewn forest floor. Driven by adrenaline, the boy shook his head. Through starred vision, he levelled the flare gun at the blurry shape lumbering toward him.

Pulling the trigger as he turned his head, Ender heard the ‘fwish’ of the gyrojet followed immediately by a roar that vibrated him to his core. Staggering to his feet, the boy backpedaled as his vision cleared, finally allowing him to see his adversary.

Ender found himself staring down a very angry lion, or at least it would be a lion were it not for a grossly overdeveloped front half and a pair of leathery bat wings extending from its back. The beast had taken the flare to its shoulder, but instead of roaring in pain and running off, it had batted the gyrojet away with a massive paw and was now nursing small burns on its chest and forelimb. Fearing a sudden forest fire, Ender’s eyes followed the flare, only to discover why the beast was still standing. The gyrojet’s motor had fired, causing the monster’s slight injuries, but the magnesium itself hadn’t ignited.

Looking up, the beast snarled, set down its front paws, and charged Ender with a limping gait.

There was no time to search for the missing sidearm; instead, the soldier opted to use the tactic responsible for felling the acid lizard from before. Ender keyed the weight setting to neutral as he unslung his PAC. Holding it by the straps, he began to sling the metal cannister around like a massive shot-put. After one rotation, he felt the end of the PAC connect to the animal’s skull with a resounding thud that stung his hands.

Staggering and off-balance, Ender stumbled to regain his footing as he saw his adversary do the same. It crashed to the forest floor in front of Ender, carried forward by its momentum.

The boy never saw the long scorpion tail flash in his direction, but he sure felt the searing pain as it drew a line of blood across his left thigh.

Ender Wiggin had never been one to show pain. Even when tormented by various bullies throughout his life, he had made it a point to never vocalize what he felt. This pain, however, was worse by an order of magnitude. Fire seemed to race across his entire nervous system, and all he saw was red. Screaming in agony, the soldier staggered towards the clearing. The small part of his mind not occupied by pain was confident that the monster was down, but he wasn’t sure, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to stick around to find out.

The clearing did not seem to end. Through the red haze that permeated his sight and mind, Ender barely registered the fact that he may have finally escaped the nightmarish wood. Dragging the PAC behind him, he could barely think through the steps needed to maximize the cell’s output.

Rounding a small stand of trees, the boy caught sight of a small stream burbling at the bottom of a knoll. He tried to stagger towards the water, but a moan escaped from Ender as he collapsed to his knees. Crawling forward, the soldier didn’t even consider trying to access his nearly depleted medical supplies. Even if he had the presence of mind to get into the PAC, he had long since used up the anti-venom injectors.

Not like they had any effect, anyway. The random thought flitted about Ender’s rapidly degrading consciousness.

He let go of the PAC. After nine long months with it, the boy could not carry the cannister forward another inch. Pulling himself ahead on his stomach, Ender barely reached the edge of the cool stream. He flailed a limb, and somehow managed to splash water onto the gash in his leg. The fog in his mind lifted somewhat, and though the pain was as intense as ever, the soldier was able to force his hands to repeat the action.

Further washing of the wound helped ease the pain, but the fog returned, and the boy felt himself grow weaker. A numbness started at the bottom of his left foot and began to spread upwards.

The sun crested the horizon, illuminating his surroundings in a brilliant green. Looking up, Ender’s eyes settled on a moss-roofed cottage seemingly built into the grassy hillock. He laughed, a short choking sound, as he wondered if if was real or if his addled mind was inventing things as it shut down.

After all, the cottage did look like something straight out of the Fantasy Game.

The sun continued to rise, bringing color to the world and eliciting birdsong from countless nests and bird houses that surrounded the home.

Ender smiled as he felt his strength leave him. Closing his eyes to the rising sun, he thought that, real or not, this was a beautiful place to die.