• Published 12th Jan 2012
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Silent Knight - Brony 2-Ma-Ro



Interdimensional Travelers, Equicidal Robots, Whistling. Your typical Wednsday in Ponyville

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Chapter 4a: The Vault

Chapter 4 (A): The Vault

by: Brony-2-Ma-Ro

Void

Complete. Total. Absolute.

No up.

No down.

No gravity.

No light.

No heat nor cold. Just void.

She shivered. It was always the void.

Two malevolent blue eyes stared out of the blackness. Her eyes.

Hello again.

“What? No! Go! Leave me! I’ve had enough of you!”

I am the night! You are weak! You are nothing! You really believe some silly “Night Show” will fool them? They all know who you are! Who we are!

She swallowed her fear, facing her shadow. “No. No! I am not you!”

The eyes seemed to twinkle with laughter. But I am YOU! Do not think you have friends. Do not think they could save you, even if they wanted to.The blackness deepened, as if the void around the presence wasn’t black enough to portray her in full.

You are alone. You will always be alone. All you have is me.

An evil grin split the blackness below the eyes.

Your NIGHTMARE!

The breath was effortlessly pulled from her lungs, and the force holding her aloft fled. With no time to scream, nor a moment to cry, she fell…

---

She jerked upright, cold sweat on her face. Her sheets, warmed by the heat of her being, tangled about her legs. Breathing deeply, she tried to calm the thudding in her breast. Tears threatened to push themselves free, and she felt pressure crawling from the pit of her stomach, building in her throat. Instinctively, she quickly buried her face into the pillow, the pressure releasing itself in a muffled scream of frustration.

These dreams will not stop!

No matter how hard she tried, Nightmare would always win. If she didn’t wake up before the dream had ended, Nightmare always took control.

And it felt good!

The scream finally petered out to little more than a squeak. Pathetic. Unable to stop herself, Luna sobbed softly into her pillow.

Damn her! Damn everyone! Why couldn’t she just be her?

These thrice-damned dreams! She had been having them every day for nearly a year now, ever since Nightmare Night. Worse, they had intensified the moment she’d thought of putting on the Night Show. The moment she’d wanted to give something back. She hadn’t told Celestia about them. Her sister already had enough to deal with, what with recent events.

And Twilight's recent, erroneously received letter certainly hadn't helped matters.

She, Luna, was Queen of the Night! Ruler of the Moon! Monarch of Dreams!

And she couldn’t even rid herself of her own nightmare.

There was no way of knowing how long she remained in that state, face pressed into the slightly damp pillow, the rest of her tangled in her bed. She felt sick, and was seriously contemplating the possibility of simply staying right where she was. Alone, in her room, with no noise but the quiet murmur of wind outside. She could wait until Celestia set the sun, and spend her night guiding the moon across the sky.

However, frustration finally won out over exhaustion, and she flopped out of her four-poster, kicking the bedclothes free. She staggered over to the curtains, pulling them aside. She winced at the sunlight bursting in.

Oh blast it all! I was not even asleep for two hours!?

She glanced over her shoulder. The stately bed, with its indigo trim, and deep blue covers, suddenly seemed infinitely more inviting. Yet now that she was standing upright, her body had fully shifted itself over to “awake.”

Sighing, she went over to dresser, steeling herself to look in the oval mirror. Staring back at her was a sleepless, baggy eyed alicorn, with very bad bed-man. She neither knew nor cared how something so magically charged as her ethereal, star-filled mane could become messy, it simply was.

I truly am a sight, aren’t I?

Her horn glowed as she took her brush to it, wincing every so often as it found a snag. After a minute or so of guiding the teeth through her mane, she moved on to her tail. There was an even greater number of knots here, and she suppressed a yelp at finding a particularly stubborn one. After that, she selected another brush, this one wider, with softer bristles, and began running this through her coat, starting at the neck, and ending near her hindquarters. After checking the mirror once more to ensure she was presentable, she lifted her ebony tiara from its cushion on the dresser, setting it just behind her horn.

Her wandering eyes fell upon her abacus. She had little need of it now, but out of habit, she had been marking the days since her return upon it's colored, wooden beads. Her goal, and hope was that by the time she had counted off all forty beads, that she would have... Well, truthfully, she hoped she would know by then. The wooden framework of the contraption had been set carefully on a small shelf in the corner of the room. She smiled, a slight wave of nostalgia creeping up.

She shook it off, stifling a yawn in the process

No point in sleeping now. I’ll just have to hope I can find time to rest later. She smiled, bitterly. In the meantime, there’s no need to remain cooped up in here…

Fully groomed and dressed, she strutted over to the the large, double doors to her chambers. With no warning, she was hit by a wave of disconcerting unease. An aftershock from the dream, as if it where redoubling its efforts to unsettle her.

Deep breaths, one step at a time, act like you think you’re in charge.

As if she had a choice.

With a final, shuddering sigh, she opened the doors. The two gray pegasi on either side stiffened to attention. Careful to keep her expression regal, she addressed the one to her right. “Captain Drake?”

“Ma’am?”

“Lieutenant Charcoal?”

“Your highness.”

"Any news?"

Charcoal shook his head. "Nightfyre arrived perhaps an hour ago to report, but we told her you wished to remain undisturbed. She wishes to meet with you before the day is out."

Luna nodded. “Excellent, thank you. Wouldst thou be… ah, would you two please be so kind as to escort me to The Vault?” She winced inwardly. A full year of practice, yet every so often, her old habit of annunciation would pop up all over again.

There was a pause as the two guards glanced at each other. Drake spoke up. “Is that an order, your majesty?”

Luna sighed. As noble as these ponies were, some of them seemed too afraid to wipe their own nose without permission. “Yes, I suppose it is.”

Drake nodded. “Then we shall, your highness. Would you like me to send another shift to guard your chambers?”

Gripped in her deep blue light, the doors behind her slammed shut with an ominous boom, causing Charcoal to flinch slightly. Luna shook her head, suppressing a smile at his reaction. “That won’t be necessary, thank you," she said.

---

As she made her way through the palace halls, she made sure that whenever servants or visiting lords or ladies were nearby, she would hold herself in the proper, regal manner. Otherwise, she felt content to walk at her own, sedate pace through the twisting corridors.

After a quick detour through the central courtyard, she heard a familiar voice, speaking in a very business-like manner with what sounded like several ponies. Luna moved quickly to a side-passage, her two guardians barely able to keep up. Celestia and her own escort of guards, servants, and various other ponies of high stature moved past. Luna thought she even saw that stuck-up snob of a unicorn, Blueblood, trailing behind the rest. Celestia was answering the many questions constantly plied to her by the group, ranging from plans for the Gala to what she would like for dinner. She answered each question with patience gained only through a millenia of practice.

Luna, trying not to eavesdrop, remained where she was, hoping that neither Celestia nor her escort would notice her.

Not that she didn’t trust her sister. She just... didn’t feel like talking to her right then.

Once the gaggle of noble-ponies had moved on, Luna and her guards continued on their route. Eventually, they found themselves on the lower levels. There were no less than seven checkpoints between the main fareway of palace traffic and her destination, all punctuated by massive, vaulted doors. About ten guards remained stationed at each, but none of them questioned the Princess of the Night for exploring her own palace. Seven doors opened for her, and in turn, seven doors closed behind.

Now, set before her, was a long marble hallway about thirty feet across, and twice as tall, the ceiling vaulting high above. Doors were set in the wall at fifty-foot intervals. Glancing to her right, Luna noticed that Drake looked slightly nervous.

Without really thinking about it, she tried striking up a conversation. “This is your first time here, Captain, is it not?”

Realizing his behavior was not in line with protocol, Captain Drake immediately stiffened, eyes set dead ahead..

“No… er, yes your highness," he said.

Luna smiled, in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. It didn’t seem to help much. “Not to worry. There is nothing down here that will bite you.”

They continued on in silence, with only the echo of their hooves clip-clopping upon the floor. Then, after a moment of thought, Drake spoke again.

“Your highness, permission to speak freely.”

“Granted.”

“What, ah, precisely is down here?”

Luna smiled, gesturing with her hoof. “Mostly documents. Some are too old to be put on public display, some too dangerous, and a few especially old ones are still under scrutiny. Mostly, though, it’s just dust.” She looked ahead at the door coming up on their right. Door number CXVII.

Like every other door in the hallway, it was a large, circular thing, nearly fifteen feet in diameter, with rivets set around the circumference. It was embellished with ornate patterns of gold-lief, but there was no trace of a handle. Twenty guards stood at attention; ten in golden armor, ten in black. She spoke out of the side of her mouth to Drake. “This, however, happens to be an exception.

As they reached the door, all twenty ponies stood even straighter. Drake and Charcoal hung back, as she walked right up to the magically reinforced threshold. She gently tapped her horn against the one of the burnished stylings, and a high, almost cheerful chime resonated through the hallway.

A moment later, a near-invisible slot, completely flush with the door, opened, and a set of green eyes peered out.

“You’re highness?”

“May I enter?”

“Of course.”

The slot closed, and there was the noise of several locks disengaging, as well as more than a few protective charms being lifted. Finally, the door swung inwards with a series of deep, ratcheting clanks. A slightly disheveled unicorn immediate prostrated himself before her. “Your majesty.”

She turned to Drake and Charcoal, who remained at attention where she’d left them. “Captain, Lieutenant. You are relieved of duty.”

The guards gave her a worried look, not certain if they were being offered a break, or being fired. “Ah, ma’am?” Said Drake

“Oh for…" Luna gave an exasperated sigh. "Go get some lunch! I can find my own way back to my room, thank you.”

The two guards bowed, and began retracing their steps. Luna looked back at the unicorn, who hadn’t moved from his prostrate position.

He wasn’t old (certainly not by her standards), perhaps only within his mid to late twenties, but his mane and tail where already white, with a light brown coat complimenting his lab-tunic. His cutie-mark was that of a scalpel and a screwdriver crossing one another. She smiled. “Professor Rocket Surgeon. You can stop kissing the floor, now. I haven’t walked upon it yet.”

The professor immediately stood upright, but was relieved to realize the princess was joking. He smiled in return. “Greetings, your grace. To what do we owe this honor?” His voice was pleasant to hear. Not smooth, like some jazz-musician, nor as deep, but friendly nonetheless.

Luna shrugged. “Curiosity. I wish to see how far you’ve gotten.”

Professor Surgeon’s face fell. “I, ah, that is… of course, your highness. Please, come in.”

Luna stepped into a brightly lit chamber. She passed through the magical barrier, which served to hide the contents of the room to outside eyes, and to keep the air in the room separate from the outside. As such, she resisted the urge to close her nostrils, as they were bombarded with the sterile, disinfectant-rich smell of the Vault.

White-wash walls on all sides, and several small vents in the ceiling, magically cycling fresh, sterilized air into the room. The floor was polished marble, with veins of jade and obsidian running through it at intervals. She glanced over her shoulder as the door ponderously closed. It was at least a full foot thick, and from this side, she could see the immense amount of clockwork through the back which operated the locks themselves; about two-dozen steel pistons, perhaps four inches across, and eighteen long. As the door shut, the clockwork once again whirred to life, and the rods slid into place in counter-clockwise sequence in the space of a few seconds. Although she was familiar enough with the basic technology of this day and age, she still felt a slight thrill as the last of the locks thunked into place.

Magic might be elegant, maybe even convenient, but there was something to be said about technological progress.

Rocket Surgeon looked over his shoulder. “Remind me, your grace. Have you ever been here before?”

She returned her gaze to him, shaking her head. “I’ve been in a few of the archive vaults, but not this one in particular. Would you be so kind as to give me the grand tour?”

Surgeon smiled. “Certainly.” He raised his forehoof, a mischievous grin on his face “And: here we are!”

Luna rolled her eyes, but nevertheless looked around. The room was rectangular, with the door she’d entered through set into one of the long walls. About fifteen or so scientists, interns, professors, and various doctorate holders moved about, easing by one-another in a rush-hour of white coats.

Numerous background checks had been run for each and every one of them, from education, to criminal records, to favorite food and color. When given clearance to The Vault, each one took a magically binding oath, swearing responsibility of the contents of the room, and its knowledge. Regardless if the items were documents, artifacts, or the largely coveted Colt-a-Cola recipe, the oath remained the same. It wouldn’t stop them from telling anypony; Celestia had ruled against such harsh terms. However, if someone who swore the oath did break it by telling anyone, the spell would alert the caster as to whom had broken it, and whom they had told. From there, it would be up to the legal system, as breaking the oath was considered treason.

Fortunately, in the three-hundred years this system had been in place, the oath had only ever been broken twice:

Once, by a colt too drunk to know what he was saying (and fortunately, it had been said to a mare too inebriated to remember).

The second, an old stallion, telling stories of his life to his only grandfoal. His oath had been neglected lifting after the research in question had long since become public knowledge. Needless to say, Celestia had been quite lenient in both cases.

Within the room, about twelve tables were set up in rows of two, all but one covered in various metal detritus. Luna couldn’t see what was on the last table, as several of the white-gowned investigators blocked her line of sight. The Professor nervously cleared his throat. “I fear we haven’t gotten much farther since my last report," He said. "The… items, are somewhat difficult to handle.”

Although Luna was bursting with questions, she felt it would be appropriate to hold off until he had finished.

In the center of the room, separate from the twelve other tables, was a large obsidian block of stone, carved with various magical runes of protection and containment.

What held her interest, however, was on top of the block itself.

It appeared to be some sort of armor, but not for any creature Luna knew of. It was massive, easily dwarfing her or Celestia. It had an insectoid appearance, with a long, segmented body tapering to a tail, now severed near its end. Two pairs of strange, bladed limbs that might have been wings, or maybe legs, extended from the thicker part of the body; rather, it had one limb of what might have been four at some point. Not so dissimilar to a dragonfly, or perhaps a mayfly, Luna thought. Furthermore, there was no visible way to enter the armor. The only viable opening was a hole was set in the center of the torso/thorax. A simple, cylindrical cavity encompassing a decent portion of the body, traveling all the way through it like some misplaced window. There was a good deal of twisted metal, in what might have been two or three concentric rings, but the original shape was completely unrecognizable.

The whole thing was a mess. Dented, flattened on the bottom, blackened with soot, with several of the plates fused together from the heat. The “head,” however, was by far the worst. It might have been trapezoidal in appearance at some point, but was now mashed to a pulp.

Luna smiled grimly. I suppose that’s one way to learn not to land on your head.

Scattered about the room, the scientists were taking various notes and measurements. Everypony was so engrossed in their findings, discussions, and arguments, that no one had even noticed her enter. Surgeon, after several failed attempts to get everypony’s attention, puffed his cheeks, emitting a shrill fweet! They all immediately looked up.

“Fillies and gentlecolts! We have a guest! Show some manners, for Her sake!”

An awkward silence, followed by a series of equally awkward bows, and then they resumed their activities. Surgeon shook his head. “Sincerest apologies, m’lady. I’m afraid that’s the best you’ll get from a bunch of eggheads like this.”

Laughing, Luna gave Surgeon a sly smile. “And, pray tell, precisely what makest thou… I mean, what makes you any less of an ‘egghead,’ as it were?” She thought for a moment. “Actually, I am curious: ‘Rocket Surgeon?’ How did you earn that name?”

Surgeon gave an uncomfortable laugh. “Same as just about every other pony: my parents.”

Seeing her puzzled look, he rolled his eyes. “My mother was a Wonderbolt. My father was a theoretical physicist. I swear, I was three months old before they decided on a name. Seriously, who names their foal ‘Rocket Surgeon?’”

Much to everyone’s surprise, Luna chuckled, her eyes closed in merriment. “I dare say, it fits your profession well, does it not?”

He shrugged. “Meh. To be honest, it’s thanks to Princess Celestia I’m even on this committee.”

“Really? And what is the story behind that?”

Blushing bright red, Surgeon raised a hoof, shaking his head in protest. “Oooooh, no! I’m not repeating that tale. If you want to know, ask your sister. Just mention the class of nine-ninety-six. Trust me she’ll remember.”

Luna sighed, though still smiling. “As you wish.”

Intrigued as she was, Luna pulled herself back to the present. The atmosphere did little to lighten the seriousness of the situation.

She returned her attention to the plinth. Despite the condition of its "head," or lackthereof, Luna had the distinct feeling it was watching her. She shivered, but quickly shook it off, gesturing with a hoof. “So, have we found anything more about… this?”

Surgeon shook his head. “Not much. It appears to be some sort of automaton, but far more advanced than your average ‘come-to-life’ construct. Unfortunately, we haven’t found what powers it, or what its function is. It was too heavily damaged from the crash to properly identify most of the components.” As he spoke, he trotted around the “armor,” weaving his way through the ponies. He indicated the end of the tail, lying on the stone next to its counterpart. It tapered into three blades, two facing one another, with the third perpendicular to the pair. They were warped and discolored, and Luna guessed this was due to the heat generated by the impact.

Surgeon continued. “It was armed with these, though we haven’t ascertained if it was designed for offensive or defensive capabilities.” He indicated a small cracked lens set between two of the blades, charred and smeared with soot. “We haven’t been able to identify this device either, though a guess would be some sort of extremely compact camera.” Stepping back, he made a sweeping motion with a hoof. “It most definitely appears to be designed for flight, but the appendages are too heavy to act as any viable wings; more like bladed legs, in my opinion.”

Luna gave him a confused look. “Then how did it fly? I do not doubt it your word, of course, but if not with wings, than what?”

The brown unicorn smiled, and beckoned her over to the plinth. He pointed to the cavity set in the thorax. “Notice how severe the damage to this area is?” Luna nodded her agreement. Surgeon tapped one of the bits of metal splayed in the center. “This area would be fairly well shielded from most of the impact, so only a few explanations come to mind. Judging by the shape of this cavity, I’d guess that there was something, or several things, in here, moving or spinning at incredible speed. My guess is that this, or those, is what provided the downward thrust needed to give it altitude. When the energy from the impact reached this area, the force jarred the objects out of sync, sending them colliding into one-another at tremendous speeds. Hence, the mess.”

Luna was impressed. “You deduced all this just from the remains?”

Surgeon shrugged. “Well, not me personally, your highness, but I like to think I helped.” He gave one more look at the object. “But, as I said in my report, it’s most certainly dead. It hasn’t reacted to any stimuli, and there’s no trace of magical, electrical, or heat energy. We’re not letting our guard down, mind you, but we’re pretty confident it’s not going to explode, or anything.“

*CRASH!*

Everypony jumped in surprise. Several glares were directed to the ginger intern who had dropped the tray of samples. He gave everyone a sheepish look. Surgeon facehoofed. “Peach Reedish. Could you please be a little more careful when handling objects of unknown origin?” He turned to Luna. “I am sorry, your majesty. It’s his first day here.” He glanced at adolescent unicorn, who was now scuffing the scattered detritus over to the spilled tray with his hooves. “… And with any luck, it won’t be his last.”

The colt blushed furiously, avoiding eye contact with anyone, and being especially wary of Luna. Her heart went out to the unfortunate intern. She gently nudged some of the scattered debris to where he could reach it.

She stifled a gasp of surprise.

The plate of metal she’d just mentally shifted must’ve weighed at least ninety pounds! She attempted to confirm her suspicions by lifting the piece in question with her magic, but the blue aura seemed to… slip, off of the surface. She imagined it would be akin to lifting a dense metal sphere, coated with vegetable oil.

Her consternation only increased when Peach, while thanking her, easily lifted the same piece with a single hoof!

She voiced her concern aloud. “How this possible?”

Surgeon gave her an odd look. “I’m sorry, your highness?”

She indicated Peach. “How is it he can move objects of such weight with so little effort?” Deep down, something was niggling at the back of her mind. What was it?…

It took a moment for the professor to catch her drift. “Ah, you mean the material. My sincerest apologies. I should have warned you earlier.” He gestured to the room in general. “Very nearly everything in here is resistant to magic in one way or another. My theory is that these items are so far beyond magical influence, that they are barely affected by it, meaning that lifting one piece up with magic takes anywhere from ten to thirty-fold the energy required to do it by hoof.”

Luna was barely listening, a distant look in her eyes. “I see. It must make them difficult to work with.”

Surgeon nodded, stepping aside as Peach delivered the tray to his destination. “To some extent, yes, but not nearly as much as you might think. The equipment we have suffices in terms of examination, and we unicorns can still use magic, though we must be careful. A few have complained about headaches when working in proximity to these, but they're intermittent at best, and the infirmary can't find anything amiss. Mind you, I don’t see any of the earth ponies or pegasi complaining." He smiled, bringing a hoof to his chin. "I, for one, have considered requesting permission from Celestia to peruse the archives for information on this phenomenon. It’s possible this has been recorded before.”

Luna stiffened. “Doubt.”

Surgeon looked at her questioningly. “Beg pardon?”

She quickly shook her head. “I said I doubt it’ll make a difference. I would suggest you continue as you are, but remain wary.”

Hoping to change the subject, she glanced over at the more crowded table, the one she couldn’t see properly. There appeared to be some sort of argument going on, as if several groups were competing over ownership of whatever it held.

She spoke to Surgeon. “Tell, me. What is happening over there?”

He followed her gaze. “Oh, that. One moment.” Standing up straight, he made a big show of clearing his throat. “*Ahem!* Make way for our beloved Princess Luna!”

Surgeon trotted forward, followed closely by Luna. The scientists moved aside, grumbling at the interruption. Not very loudly though, she noted.

The lone object on the table appeared to be some sort of sword, sheathed in a black, glossy material. An ornate, zigzag pattern of silver flowed from the tip of the case to the mouth, encircling both. From the form of the case itself, the blade appeared to be traditional leaf shape, starting wide at the hilt, and gradually curving to a sharp point. The bit-grip, however, was another story.

Rather than running straight back from the guard, as with traditional swords, allowing for better leverage, the handle of this weapon was split into two parallel parts, held perpendicular to the blade by two metal prongs. The shape of the grip (grips?) was strange as well, as if made from some soft clay that hadn’t hardened properly. Four rings were set side by side along the innermost of the two, at the edge furthest from its counterpart. The rods holding the handle extended past the bit, connected at the end by a curved metal band.

Luna noticed that the weapon was actually hovering about an inch above the table’s surface. She guessed this must be some magic employed to keep it from getting damaged. However, if it reacted the same way to magic as everything else in here, then in all likelihood, the spell affected the air around it, rather than the object itself.

As she approached, several glares where shot back and forth among those present. Luna glanced at Surgeon, her expression confused. “A weapon? Why so much conflict.” Her reward was a very deadpan stare from the Professor. She sighed, rolling her eyes. “You know what I meant. Why is this so significant?”

Before Surgeon could answer, a light green mare spoke up from the sidelines. “We’re trying to determine its origin.”

“Yes,” said a beige stallion on the other side of the crowd. “After we confirm how it is wielded.”

“No!” Another voice spoke up. “You can have it after we figure out what the blade is made of.”

In no time flat, the squabble had resumed. Surgeon did his best to restore order, but to no avail.

There is a rather popular theory that states a roomful of monkeys could eventually transcribe Shakesclop. It is, however, a proven fact that a roomful of scientists can bring any and all progress to a grinding halt.

“SILENCE!”

The simple word echoed off the walls, amplified by the effects of the Traditional Canterlot Voice. Cringing, everypony shut up.

Luna gave them her most charming smile, then turned to Surgeon. “Professor. Please tell me what you know of this item.”

Having been closest to Luna when she had spoken, the unfortunate professor wiggled a hoof in his ear, doing his best to look dignified. He trotted over the weapon. “Well, your highness, while we’ve recognized its basic components, we have no clue on how anypony could wield it. The grip is situated so it’s almost impossible to reach with one’s teeth, and it, like the other items in here, is resistant to magic.” He walked around to the other side of the table. “We have been unsuccessful in any attempt to remove it from the sheathe, which we have identified as some sort of carbon-based nano-fiber. Any attempt to view the blade via magic has been difficult, for obvious reasons, though not fruitless.”

He turned to face Luna, wearing a small, slightly smug grin. “While we couldn’t find any trace of the mechanism holding the blade in, we were able to identify some sort of marking on the blade itself, near the hilt.”

At this, he retrieved a piece of paper from a nearby table, guiding it with magic to within Luna’s reach. Accepting the paper, she examined it. It was a simple, black-and-white photograph. She recognized it as an x-ray of the sheath, showing the blade. However, she saw no sign of the writing Surgeon had mentioned. Before she could ask, he presented her with a clear plastic film, the exact size and shape of the photo she held. It appeared to be a negative image, with the light tone of the blade now showing black on the film. But now, she saw a strange, miniscule shape, outlined in white just where the blade reached the hilt, where before, she had seen nothing.

She looked up at Surgeon. “How didst thou make this discovery?”

Letting her lapse of modern annunciation pass, Surgeon swelled with pride. “Well, I don’t mean to brag—“

“But he’s going to anyway.”

There were some stifled snickers. Surgeon gave the azure mare who had spoken, one Professor Enigma, a hard glare, though Luna saw laughter behind his eyes. She smiled. One didn’t need a degree in psychology to see there was chemistry between the two.

Tearing his gaze away from the mare, Surgeon cleared his throat. “*Ahem* Yes, well, the etching in question wasn’t physical, per say. I believe was applied using the lodestone principle; repeatedly drawing a polarized material across the surface in the desired shape. The only way to detect it would be with some sort of magnetic imaging device, or by combining a scrutiny spell with a carefully refined polar-orientation spell.”

Luna examined the runes, barely listening to what the professor was saying. The in one corner of the emblem, two runes were just visible.

It was faint, but Luna recognized them as two archaic letters, left over from a very, very lost language.

F. I.

She felt a strange flutter in her stomach, accompanied by another twinge of déjà vu. Looking around, she saw some of the most brilliant minds in the world, all in the same room. Each and every one of them was doing their level best, but something of this magnitude required something else.

Or, perhaps, somepony else.

She thought over her decision very carefully. She knew there was potential backlash, especially from her sister. But as far as she was concerned, time was of the essence. She would, as they often said, "face the music," later.

Looking around, she realized that everypony was looking at her. She still held the paper and the film, both hovering at about eye level. She returned them to Professor Surgeon. “My thanks, Professor. I have learned much from my visit, and I wish you all the best of luck in your endeavors.

Surgeon gave her a quizzical look. “But…?”

She smiled. “I’m afraid, Professor, that I have one more request of you.” She looked at the others assembled around her. She raised her voice so all could hear. “Actually, for all of you. And let me make myself absolutely clear:

If any of you have any trepidation, I order you to refuse…”

---

Luna made her way down the long hall. The sun shone through the stained glass, casting a kaleidoscope of colors upon the walls and floor. Luncheon was nearing its end, yet the halls of Canterlot Castle were largely empty at this time, though any and all ponies who encountered her bowed, letting her pass should their paths intersect. She nodded her thanks when appropriate, and reciprocated the various greetings. Her wing itched like mad, but she resisted the urge to preen, especially in public. Stepping out into the gardens, she reflected back to the events that had just transpired within The Vault.

***

The request had not been an easy one. All present had been torn, and Luna had to remind them several times that the choice to refuse was theirs. Still, it required the mediation of Surgeon, as well as nearly fifteen full minutes of debate before the decision was made to accede to her wishes, not on her merit as a princess, but rather their trust in her as a leader.

She prayed to whatever power higher than herself, or her sister, that she could live up to that trust.

***

The gardens were largely quiet. The sweet smells of all the flowers mingled in the air. Every so often, a cool breeze would pass through, bringing momentary relief from the sun's heat.

Not for the first time, Luna reflected that it truly was a beautiful day. But she had not here to admire the outdoors.

Ting. TING ting. Ting. TING ting. Ting.

The sound of metal striking metal reached her ears. The smell of hot iron and burnt charcoal filled the air, intruding upon the scent of the gardens.

The Royal Canterlot Forge was not far ahead. Set at the very edge of the gardens, it was a square, stone building with a sloping, slate roof, and a single two-piece door in front. No decorations, nothing fancy, just the bare essentials for a smithy’s forge. Not far away, a small domed structure emitted a thin trickle of smoke, an angry red glow glaring through a window set in the side. The smelter, used to refine the metals, and remove impurities. An enormous pile of charcoal sat next to it, with a shovel stuck into it at an angle.

The roof of the forge itself overhung an enclosed fire pit, complete with bellows, as well as a trough of water adjacent to it for cooling the metal. Beyond that, several pieces of armor were gathered into a mismatched pile. Some were dented, others cracked or split, and she saw that at least two of them were severely corroded.

Sparks showered over the anvil, as an earth pony with a dark, smudged gray coat, a scorched brown apron, and a striking-glove hammered down on the bright orange metal. He appeared to be in his late thirties, early forties. He was large, rivaling the size of Applejack’s brother, Big Macintosh. His mane and tail were matted, a dirty mix of brown and black, streaked with soot and sweat, and his eyes shone the color of burnished copper. It was no surprise that his cutie-mark, partially concealed by ash and soot, was that of a hammer and anvil.

Luna contented herself to wait at a distance. Even from here, beyond the glow of the fire, the heat stung her fur. She marveled at how the blacksmith could endure it's constant blaze. Saying nothing, she observed him finish shaping the metal into the desired form. He lifted the piece with a set of thick tongs, and dunked it in the trough of water. There was a loud hiss, and a cloud of steam momentarily obscured him from view. Beneath the surface of the water, the glow of the metal dimmed rapidly, like a star in the light of day.

“Your highness.”

Luna hid her surprise. The stallion had been so intent upon his work, she hadn’t thought that he’d noticed her. She nodded. “Greetings, Ash Coat. Thou fares well?”

Turning away from the trough, Ash Coat set the still steaming object on a metal work table; Luna recognized it as a guard’s helm, with a freshly repaired seem. Ash nodded in a sharp facsimile of a bow. When he spoke, his voice carried a sophisticated knell, yet held a tone that stated clearly he had no time for pleasantries. “I’m fine, thanks for askin’, but I have little patience for practicing Old Equestrian today," he said. He indicated the haphazard pile of armor. "Cap'n Tip needs these repaired by the afternoon drills."

Luna smiled. Generally, Ash Coat was about as eloquent as a jackhammer. To him, manners were an unnecessary luxury, and if he could skimp on formalities, he did. That was probably why Luna liked him. He didn’t give two bits whether someone had praised him for his fine craftsponyship, or if they’d just told him he looked like a donkey’s behind. He’d simply respond “likewise,” then continue hammering.

When Luna had first returned to Canterlot, she recalled that Ash Coat had ranted for nearly an hour at having his work load doubled. He wasn’t lazy by any stretch. He simply enjoyed complaining. It seemed to make his job less stressful. She stifled a chuckle, as she brought to mind their first meeting...

***

“GREETINGS, CITIZEN OF EQUESTRIA!”

“Mmm-Hm...”

“...HAST THOU A NAME?”

“Eeyup.”

“...Uh, *ahem* THOU SHALT TELL US-”

“Ash Coat.”

“THEN, ah, GREETINGS, ASH COAT. WE ARE THE ROYAL PRINCESS LUNA, RULER OF THE NIGHT-”

“Pleased ta meet ya. A little busy right now. Have a nice day.”

***

No matter how loudly she’d cranked up her Royal Canterlot Voice, Ash merely brushed her off, undeterred from his task. She had come within a hair’s breadth of banishing him, and were it not for her sister’s timely intervention...

At any rate, despite the audacity of his actions, Ash had gained Luna’s grudging respect, and it was much to everypony’s surprise (especially that of Celestia’s), that both she and Ash had become fast friends. While Ash respected Luna as a princess, he didn’t treat her as a goddess to be worshiped with one’s every living breath. He treated her as if she were a normal pony, someone he could talk to without putting “your highness” in at every third syllable; while Luna was loath to admit it, it was a welcome relief from the tedious nuances of Canterlot life.

Ash enjoyed listening to Luna regale him of the times when she and Celestia ruled together, before the “go to your moon” incident, and he’d even picked up some of her vocal mannerisms. When they were together, Luna would abstain from her “shouting,” as Ash put it, who claimed that while he might be stubborn, he most certainly wasn’t deaf. As they spent more time together, talking about various non-vital subjects, he would often speak as she did, both of them “thee-ing,” “thou-ing,” and “forsooth-ing” like a pair of Shakesclopian actors.

After the Nightmare Night debacle, it had worked in reverse. Ash had patiently helped her acclimatize to the new lingo, though they would occasionally alternate back and forth, depending on the conversation.

Today, obviously, would not be one of those days.

She nodded her assent to his request. “As thou-" She caught herself. "As you wish. I am sorry to have caught you at such a busy time, but I have a favor to ask.”

Ash grunted, undoing the bindings on the gloves with a sharp pull of his teeth, and wiping his hooves on the clean grass. “Was plannin’ on takin’ a break anyhow. Righty, then: Ask away.”

Luna glanced casually at the long row of various items Ash had displayed on the outer wall of his forge, ranging from the most ornate armor to a simple axel for a wagon. “Tell me, Ash, what do you know of weapons?”

His mouth twitching slightly, Ash crossed his hooves, leaning slightly to one side. “Well, I suppose it would depend on the weapon. Are you referring swords, shields and the like, or to the military-grade pie-tins I have to put together for the annual mock wars?”

It took Luna a moment to process the sentence.

“Celestia has you making pie-tins?!

Ash’s deep, throaty chuckle boomed out across the gardens, startling a flock of red-jays from a nearby oak. “No, not really. Well, except for some of the really ornate ones.” He twisted his mouth to one side. “Still, your sister doesn’t request actual weapons very often. But it’s all part of the trade, and plenty of ponies request commissions for decoration.” Returning his gaze to Luna, head cocked to one side, he said “What do you want to know?”

Luna shifted her wing to a slightly more comfortable position, and walked politely past Ash, making her way to the work table. She spoke over her shoulder. “Would you be able to identify any sword, dagger, or the like, with little difficulty?”

Ash Coat thought for a moment. “I’d prefer not to strike my own steel," he said, "but I reckon I could. What would you like me to look at?”

Luna smiled. Carefully opening her right wing, she placed a long, black object on the table. The ornate silver zig-zag glinted orange and red in the firelight.

“Tell me, Ash.” Luna indicated the strange weapon. “What can you make of that?”

For along moment, the gray stallion simply looked at the exotic sword, still nestled in its sheathe. Luna could see his eyes flicking along its length, watching as his gaze lingered on the handle. She imagined him taking mental measurements of the length and width, and estimating the weight.

He looked back at Luna. "You want me to tell you about… this?”, he said.

She nodded once. “You can do it, can you not?”

After another second or two of thought, Ash sighed. “Well, like I said before, that depends.”

Her brow furrowed. “Depends upon what?”

Ash said nothing, merely picking up the object with his hoof, testing its weight.

Finally, after a long moment:

“Princess Luna, What do you know about humans?"

Silent Knight will return summer 2012

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